In the civil marriage and birth records of St Kitts, my husband’s 2nd great grandfather Richard Johnson Marshall is listed as a school master, with race recorded as “colored”. It is known that he was born about 1845 on the nearby British West Indian island of Antigua, only a few years after the abolition of slavery in 1834. As a formal education was discouraged by British authorities and West Indian slave owners before emancipation, what was Richard’s path to his position as a teacher on St Kitts?
The answer was found in an unlikely place – Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the Moravian Church Archives. In a old book labeled “1860-1863 Antigua Candidates for Communion”, male and female Moravian congregation members were listed with attendance records and notes on whether they were confirmed or married. In a very few instances, unmarried men had the note “Mico” next to their names. A Richard Marshall was one of these men.
The Moravian church, with roots in the fifteenth century Czech Republic, is a protestant sect that has emphasized missionary outreach to less developed areas of the world. Although Moravian missionaries in the West Indies accepted slavery, they felt that part of converting enslaved people to Christianity was providing them with an education. Before emancipation, the Moravians had started schools for children of African descent on islands including Antigua and St Kitts. Just after abolition, missionaries on Antigua opened a school there with the specific goal of preparing young boys to qualify for acceptance to a local teacher training program. They hoped to produce young male teachers that could be sent out to islands across the West Indies. The teacher training program had been established for young people of the “negro and colored races” by the Mico Charity.
The Mico Charity was founded in 1670 in the will of a British aristocrat named Lady Mico. She left a large sum of money for the purpose of buying the freedom of English men who had been forced into slavery in North Africa. In 1835, with a push from members of the Anti-Slavery Society in England, the fund was applied to the cause of educating newly-freed young people of the West Indies as teachers. Although the school was non-denominational, religious education was an important part of the curriculum, and a teacher there was to have “satisfactory recommendations as to his religious and general character”.
A man named John Miller was appointed as a Mico superintendent and sent to Antigua in 1838 to scout out a good location for a new school. He enthusiastically wrote back to his superiors about what he saw as a great need for education there:
“… the wickedness that prevails here… convinces me that this must be the scene of my labors… Here are the ball-rooms! Grog Shop and brothels… It is a very Sink of Sin.”
The school was established in St. Johns, Antigua, and produced teachers who were sent out to the Virgin Islands, the British West Indies, and as far south as Trinidad and Tobago.
Was Richard Johnson Marshall one of these teachers? It looks very likely, as the names, places, times, and circumstances all fit. He was recorded as attending the Mico School in the early 1860s in Antigua. He would have been in his late teens at that time, given his approximate birth year. He shows up on St Kitts in 1866, when he married Ann Marie Richardson at the Moravian Chapel in Estridge, and was listed as “full” age, meaning he was at least 21 years old. His appearance in St Kitts jives with the mission of Mico schools to send their teachers out to other West Indian islands. In the birth records of his many children born in parishes on both St Kitts and Nevis from 1868 to 1891, his occupation as father was recorded as school master.
A similar story was shown on the BBC program “Who Do You Think You Are”, about the West Indian branch of journalist and newscaster Moira Stuart’s family tree. Her ancestor from Antigua was also educated by Moravian missionaries, and he was sent to the island of Dominica to work as a teacher.
- Family Search library, various microfilms of civil records for St Kitts and Nevis
- Moravian Archives in Bethlehem PA, the official repository for the records of the Moravian Church in America – Northern Province, including churches in the United States, Canada, and the eastern West Indies
- The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700 by Jeffrey Cox, Routledge, 2007
- A Brief History of the Moravian Church, Moravian Church in North America website, 2017
- The Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religions by Patrick Taylor and Frederick I. Case, University of Illinois Press 2013 – background on Moravian schools in the West Indies and establishment of the Mico school in Antigua
- The Mico Charity Schools in the British West Indies, 1835-1842 by Frank J. Kingsberg in the Journal of Negro History, July 1939
- Moira Stuart episode of BBC program Who Do You Think You Are in 2004