Thomas Calhoun Walker was a teacher, lawyer, and government official. He was born into slavery on June 16, 1862, in Gloucester County, Virginia. At just a few months old, Walker gained his freedom after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves. Walker’s parents, despite their new liberty, chose to stay and work on plantations around Spring Hill.
After Walker’s former master died and owner died, his son Lieutenant William J. Baytop took over the plantation. The Baytop’s had no children and convinced Walker’s parents to let them keep young Walker. The Baytops reportedly treated young Walker well. They named him Thomas after his biological father and Calhoun after South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. When he was a few years older, Walker’s father sent for him, and the Baytops returned him to his family.
At the age of 10, Walker began working odd jobs to help support his family. Although he wanted an education, his father told him that at the age of 10, he was too old to learn. Never giving up, Walker eventually learned how to read and write.
As a teenager, Walker scraped together 92 cents and went to Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, in hopes of obtaining a higher education. Unfortunately, due to his limited education and resources, Walker was unable to pass Hampton’s entrance exam and was denied admission. Nevertheless, Walker did not give up. He returned to the Institute and General Samuel J. Armstrong made an exception and allowed him to enroll under the condition that he worked on campus during the day and attend classes at night.
In 1883, Walker began studying law. He made little progress until he began studying under former Confederate General William B. Taliaferro in 1887. Walker had trouble obtaining law books so the General granted him unlimited access to his private library.
Walker was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1887. After passing the bar, he worked tirelessly to defend fellow African Americans, taking on a number of cases of black men falsely accused of raping white women. At the age of 29, he was elected to the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors.
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Walker as advisor and consultant on Negro affairs for the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration, earning him the nickname of “Black Governor” of Virginia. Walker died in 1953 at the age of 91.
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