Thomas Calhoun Walker, teacher, lawyer, and government official, was born into slavery on June 16, 1862 in a small cabin at Spring Hill in Gloucester County, Virginia. On January 1, 1863, when Walker was just a few months old, President Abraham 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.
Walker’s former owner and master died, and his son Lieutenant William J. Baytop took over the plantation. Lieutenant Baytop and his wife had no children of their own and convinced Walker’s parents to let them keep him while he was young. The Baytops 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.
Walker and his family lived near Edge Hill where they rented a two-room shed and a kitchen. The boy’s childhood ended at the age of 10 when he began working odd jobs to help support his family. Walker desperately wanted an education, but his father said that at age 10 he was too old to learn. At 13 he could neither read nor write. But young Walker persisted and finally learned to read when a Sunday School teacher gave him a spelling book called “John Common’s Book.”
As a teenager Walker scraped together 92 cents and journeyed 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. Walker refused to give up and returned to Hampton, persuading the school’s founder, General Samuel J. Armstrong, to make an exception and allow him to enroll. Armstrong did on the condition that he be given work to do 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 gaining law books so the General granted him unlimited access to his private library.
Thomas Calhoun Walker was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1887. During his long career, he worked tirelessly to defend fellow African Americans, taking on a number of cases of black men falsely accused of raping white women. He also entered politics. In 1891 at the age of 29, he was elected to the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors. In 1896, President William McKinley appointed Walker as Virginia’s first black Collector of Customs.
In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Walker as advisor and consultant of Negro affairs for the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration, earning him the nickname of “Black Governor” of Virginia. Walker strongly believed in education for all people and became the superintendent of Gloucester Negro Schools. He was noted for donating money to help build schools for African Americans in that county. Thomas Calhoun Walker passed away in 1953 in Gloucester County, Virginia at the age of 91.