William Washington Colley (12 February 1847–24 December 1909), Baptist missionary and a founder of the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, was the son of William Washington Colley, a white resident of Prince Edward County, and Selina, a neighbor's slave. After the Civil War, Colley identified his mother as Selina Colley, although it is unlikely that his parents were ever legally married. Even later, Colley's widow described his parents as a Scottish clergyman and a Native American woman. Nothing is known of Colley's childhood, early education, or when or how he gained his freedom. From the autumn of 1870 until 1874 he was a student at the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen (popularly known as the Richmond Theological Institute or the Colver Institute and later part of Virginia Union University). He preached in Louisa County during the summers of 1871 and 1872 and in Norwich, Connecticut, during the summers of 1873 and 1874.

In May 1873 Colley was ordained a minister in Alexandria. The following year he requested assignment to Africa as a missionary. He sailed for west Africa on 8 January 1875 under appointment of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. In cooperation with the Virginia Baptist State Convention, to which many African American Baptist churches in Virginia belonged, the board sent Colley and a white minister, from Mississippi, to the area then known as Yorubaland and later as Nigeria. They began their work in Lagos in October, but Colley soon became disappointed with how white missionaries treated the local population and with the restrictions that his colleague and other white leaders of missionary work placed on the activities of African American missionaries. He returned to the United States in November 1879 and resigned.

Colley and the Virginia Baptist State Convention immediately began to lay the groundwork for a national organization of Baptists to support missionary work in Africa. Named official ambassador of the state convention in January 1880, he worked tirelessly throughout that year to organize a national convention, writing many letters and traveling throughout the Southeast to solicit black Baptist support. When about 150 delegates gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, in November 1880, Colley opened the proceedings as temporary presiding officer. His role in founding the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention (BFMC) was pivotal. In addition to its importance to black Americans as an instrument to conduct missionary work in Africa, the conference was one of three major African American Baptist organizations that merged in 1895 to form the National Baptist Convention, the largest and most-enduring national association of African American Baptists.

In the year following the creation of the BFMC, Colley's work was instrumental in setting the organization on sound footing. Elected corresponding secretary and one of five Virginians to serve on the first executive board, he corresponded widely and traveled extensively, to Baptist conventions and both black and white Baptist churches. Though Colley strongly supported independent black Baptist mission work in Africa, he did not oppose participation of white Baptists, many of whom shared his conviction that African American Christians had a providential role as leaders in evangelizing Africans.

On 1 November 1883 Colley married Georgie Carter, of Portsmouth, a twenty-five-year-old Baptist lay leader and public school teacher. In consenting to be his wife, she fully understood and accepted the challenge of mission work as a co-laborer with her new husband. Shortly after they married, the Colleys journeyed to Liberia with several other missionaries as part of the BFMC's first major mission operation, with a goal of establishing the Bendoo station among the Vai people of western Liberia. Foreign missions were a challenge for white Christians and even more so for African American organizations whose memberships were poorer. In addition to the difficulty of raising money, the BFMC faced the sad reality that among its first group of missionaries several died and others returned home ill. Tragedy hit the Colleys twice. One of their seven children, who was born during their three years in Africa, died there. (They also had four daughters and two sons.) In addition, Colley, when firing a gun in an attempt to frighten away a mentally ill man, accidentally killed an African boy. Local officials and the testimony of witnesses to the incident exonerated him of wrongdoing. Grieving, ill, and already planning to return to the United States, Colley was recalled for investigation. The BFMC formally accepted his explanation and assigned him domestic leadership responsibilities, but he was no longer one of the organization's most conspicuous leaders.

Colley spent the remainder of his career laboring for the cause of African missions, delivering addresses on African peoples and customs, and helping to write religious tracts. In 1889 the BFMC recommended that the president of the United States offer him an appointment as consul to the Congo Free State. William Washington Colley resided in Harrisonburg in 1900 and died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on 24 December 1909, having contributed immensely to the mission programs of the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in H. A. Tupper, The Foreign Missions of the Southern Baptist Convention (1880), 427–428 (with birth date), and Charles H. Corey, A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary, with Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Work among the Colored People of the South (1895), 143–144; parents identified on 8 Nov. 1870 application (no. 2143), Freedman's Savings and Trust Company Records, Record Group 101, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; 1840s relationship of parents documented in Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War (2004), 305, 573; Portsmouth Marriage Register (with full name); L. A. Scruggs, Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character (1893), 228–231; Lewis G. Jordan, Negro Baptist History U.S.A., 1750–1930 (1930), 114–115 (portraits facing 24 and 56, death date and place facing 56); C. C. Adams and Marshall A. Talley, Negro Baptists and Foreign Missions (1944), 32–35; J. H. Jackson, A Story of Christian Activism: A History of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (1980), 32–34; Walter L. Williams, Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa, 1877–1900 (1982), 17–18, 66–69, 185, 189; Sandy D. Martin, Black Baptists and African Missions: The Origins of a Movement, 1880–1915 (1989); missionary career, including Colley's reports and letters from the field, documented in Baptist Foreign Mission Convention annual Minutes (1881–1891).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Sandy Dwayne Martin.

How to cite this page:
Sandy Dwayne Martin, "William Washington Colley (1847–1909)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Colley_William_Washington, accessed [today's date]).

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