Pure in Heart, Brave in Spirit: the Life of Silas X. Floyd

When the reverent David Floyd died on October 9, 1900, the newspaper wrote that it was “one of the largest funerals of a colored person every witnessed.” In spite of a downpour that continued through the afternoon, there was not a vacant seat in Trinity Christian (then Colored) Methodist Church and many stood in the yard in the rain. Eulogists included the well-known newspaper editor Rev. William J. White and CME Bishop R. S. Williams, while professor A. R. Johnson served as usher. Floyd was a “man who was known, honored and esteemed by the entire community, both black and white….” Twenty-three years later even grander accolades were given to his son Silas Xavier upon his death.

 David Floyd was born in 1829 in Sandersville, Ga., probably enslaved, since neither he nor his wife Sarah Jane appear in the antebellum censuses. Together they created a strong family; at David’s death they had been married 46 years and had seven children. Silas entered the world in 1869. The Floyds had migrated to Augusta after emancipation and lived in the area known today as Old Town. The rigid Jim Crow laws had not set in yet and the neighborhood was still a racial and class mix.

Floyd neighbors included the bi-racial Ladavese family and the white Berry Benson family. For more than 20 years David worked as a coachman/porter for John Davidson, the “father of education in Augusta.” He also earned money for his family in other ways. In his memoirs, Ancient Days in Augusta, neighbor Charles Benson wrote that David Floyd “had a fine vegetable garden and was our gardener…with [his] talents we had one of the finest vegetable and flower gardens in town.” David also cut wood for the Bensons at 50 cents per cord at a time when a day’s wage was 50 cents.

Thanks to his own diligence and intelligence, but also to the help of his brothers, Silas Floyd attended and graduated from Atlanta University.

David Floyd became a minister known for his piety and benevolence. He preached regularly at Macedonia, Thankful and Springfield Baptist churches, but also at Trinity and Rock of Ages CME churches, as well as Bethel AME and Christ Presbyterian, often for evening services and/or filling the morning pulpit for absent ministers. The frequency of his work speaks to his talents as an orator.

Following David’s example, all of the Floyd sons became hard-working and successful within the restricted parameters of the society in which they lived. Three migrated North—Richard and Frank to Boston, and David to Springfield, Mass. But sons Charles and Silas stayed in the South. Thanks to his own diligence and intelligence, but also to the help of his brothers, Silas went to college. As Benson wrote in his Memoirs, “one of his [David’s] sons was a Bellman porter and another worked in Boston and between them they educated Silas for the ministry, so that afterwards he became Augusta’s most respected colored citizen.”

The life of his father became a model for this son. While in school Silas worked as a newsboy and a boot black. Every Sunday when he delivered the paper to merchant J. B. White, the young man also shined his shoes. Silas Xavier Floyd first appears in The Augusta Chronicle in 1883 as an active member of the YMCA; as part of that work and he and two other young men were holding religious services at the jail, a foreshadowing of his lifelong devotion to service. Two years later, although he was still a year from graduating, young Silas gave a speech at the commencement exercises of Ware High School, the public high school for blacks founded in 1880. The next year he delivered the valedictory address and was given a prize in recognition of his outstanding work by Superintendent Lawton B. Evans. He received his diploma from the hands of John Davidson, president of the board of education, who must have been proud of his porter’s son. From there he attended and graduated from Atlanta University.

In 1901, Silas wed the widow Ella Drayton James, a seamstress who had married barber Owen C. James in 1883 and was raising her only child, Marietta. Born in South Carolina, Ella and her sisters came to Augusta where Ella, Katie and Henrietta remained, while Mary married a sea captain out of Jacksonville, Fla. Their daughter Nora married another Jacksonville native, the great composer of the Harlem Renaissance J. Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the music that turned his brother James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into the “Negro National Anthem.” Silas helped Ella raise her daughter Marietta to become a teacher while the two of them devoted their lives to others.

When Ella and Silas married, he was already on the way to making a strong reputation for himself and becoming one of the most respected members of the community. As the more fluid race relations of the 1880s gave way to the rigid Jim Crow laws that defined American segregation, Silas Floyd and his friend and colleague the Reverend Charles T. Walker became the unofficial liaisons between the races in Augusta for more than two decades.

Floyd and his friend and colleague, the Rev. Charles T. Walker, became the unofficial liaisons between the races in Augusta for over two decades.

 By the turn of the century Floyd had taught for several years and edited the African American newspaper The Augusta Sentinel, had taken three years to serve as a field worker throughout the South for the International Sunday School Convention and had returned to pastor Tabernacle Baptist Church during the time Charles T. Walker served a major church in New York City. On January 29, 1900, the newspaper announced: “Noted Young Colored Divine Preaches Strong Sermon.” Crowds had to be turned away, but he told those gathered that no real success in life came without following the Golden Rule; no worthy achievement “is out of line with the Sermon on the Mount.” These became themes in his life.

By 1902 he was gaining fame not only as a teacher/preacher/lecturer, but also as a writer. That May the American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia published two Floyd books: The Gospel of Service andOther Sermons—the first book of sermons by an African American the APBS had ever published—and The Life of Reverend Charles T. Walker DD, a biography of his colleague published by National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville, Tenn. His poetry and articles were also appearing in journals and magazines, including the national literary publication Lippincott’s, where he was in the company of such literary giants as Willa Cather, Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde. In 1905 his book of didactic stories for African American children, Floyd’s Flowers, came out for the first time. (It was reprinted in 1920, 1922 and 1925.) According to his introduction, he wrote “with the hope that many young minds may be elevated by means of these stories and many hearts filled with high and holy aspirations.”

In 1902 the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, whose members included presidents and professors of Ivy League institutions, elected Silas Floyd as a member. He was the fourth black chosen, following Booker T. Washington, Major Richard R. Wright and Dr. W.E.B DuBois. Calling Floyd the “Paul Lawrence Dunbar of the South,” The Augusta Chronicle wrote, “It is matter of pardonable pride that an Augusta colored man is able to find himself quoted almost every month in literary magazines.” Floyd himself, however, was quite humble.

 Floyd’s theme in most of his writings was servant leadership. He found, he wrote, “too much selfishness in our conception of salvation.” Instead he argued that all should be concerned less with themselves and more with others. “Physician, drayman, lawyer, teacher, governor, president, banker, farmer, carpenter, cook, merchant, preacher, railroad president…no matter how lofty, no matter how humble, all are called to serve God and humanity.”

He walked his talk. Floyd was generous with his resources making donations not only to many African American community organizations, but also to fundraisers as diverse as the Butt Memorial Association, the American Red Cross and Armenian relief. But significantly, he was also generous with his time, knowledge and talents. Over the years, he was an active speaker for and officer of the Colored YMCA and the board of the Shiloh Orphanage. In August 1908 he joined with other leaders to incorporate the Negro Fair Association, not just for entertainment but to showcase the accomplishments of African Americans. He was treasurer of the Colored Committee of the Flood Relief fund in 1908 and again in 1912. On March 12 of that year, Floyd and C. T. Walker provisioned 43 families. Floyd chaired the Committee of Public Welfare to distribute relief to the African American community after the devastating fire of 1916. In World War I he was chair for the Richmond County Food Administration drive. He also accompanied black selective service men to training camps and worked on the advisory board for the draft. During the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, when the community called on teachers to answer the nursing shortage Silas Floyd was one of those faithfully on duty day and night. In October 1919 when the new City Teachers Organization was founded, the members chose Floyd as president, an office he later held nationally. When the group held their state convention in Augusta, Floyd had to advertise for members of the African American community to accommodate teachers who, because of Jim Crow laws, could not get rooms at city hotels. 

Throughout his life Floyd remained a teacher, first at the Mauge Street School and later the Gwinnett School, becoming its principal after A. R. Johnson retired in 1909. Thousands of students benefited from his careful instruction. For many years Floyd also wrote a weekly column for The Chronicle known as “Notes Among the Colored People.” It is not only a historical treasure for defining the many activities and achievements of black Augusta in the early 20th century, but it also gave Floyd a bully pulpit for trying to pressure the white community into action to help the disfranchised African American citizenry. He asked for neighborhood improvements including road paving, attention to drainage problems and street lighting. After the death of his childhood customer merchant J. B White, Floyd became a member of the committee to make suggestions on how his legacy to the city would be spent. When almost all recommendations had been for civic improvements that would affect whites only—a library and auditorium, and business education classes at night for white men and women working in the mills—Floyd pushed for city council to designate $50,000 of the $400,000 for a badly needed new grammar school in the black community.

For many years Floyd also wrote a weekly column for The Augusta Chronicle known as “Notes Among the Colored People.”

Floyd was certainly cognizant of and concerned about the injustice of Jim Crow and disfranchisement. As early as 1903 he wrote: “I know that the wrongs which are heaped upon the colored people in this country are many and grievous—discriminated against in public, even in private life. Right to vote being taken away in nearly every southern state. Lynching on the increase. Not only men, but women being burned at the stake.” But to the frustration of civil rights leaders, he feared that radical action would lead to destruction. He saw himself as a pragmatist: “White people have all the courts, all the railroads, all the newspapers, all the telegraph wires and double the men that we have. In every race riot, north and south, the poor colored man will get the worst of it ultimately.” Like Martin Luther King Jr two generations later, he believed in the moral arc of the universe. “God is not dead,” he wrote, “his chariots are not unwheeled and in swift ways they always fly to the rescue of those who are patient in well doing.” Almost 100 years ago Floyd wrote, “The trouble between blacks and whites grows out of the fact that the two races do not know each other—do not understand each other.” He hoped that understanding would lead to change.

Meanwhile, during World War I he participated in meetings that sought to encourage that change by addressing issues regarding inequality and injustice. At a 1917 meeting in Macon with more than a thousand delegates, he was one of the main speakers and supported resolutions that called for an end to lynching, for the right to vote, better wages, better schools and a chance to serve in military. Basically, the delegates warned white Georgians that if things did not get better in the South, blacks would leave. Indeed the Great Migration was already underway—Floyd himself had three brothers who had gone to the North. In another meeting in January of 1919 held at Tuskegee, Floyd addressed the audience saying,
“We have heard a great deal about making the world safe for democracy. That’s what we thought we were fighting for a little while ago; but since the armistice has been signed, we haven’t seen in this country
any very radical change in the treatment of the colored people by the whites. And I have about made up my mind that about all the democracy we colored people are going to get will be that which we make for ourselves.”

Yet, in spite of his discouragement, he continued his teaching and writing, his good works in the community and his push for improved conditions for African Americans until his death in September 1923 of a heart attack that many felt was brought on ”by going night and day never stopping.” He was in his mid-50s. 

Hundreds filed by his casket to pay their respects and between 2,500 and 3,000 people attended his funeral at Tabernacle Baptist Church. Prominent black and white Augustans paid tribute—all remarked not only on his accomplishments but on his humility. In his remarks School Superintendent Lawton B. Evans said: “The greatest monument we could build to him would be [a life] of service.” Silas X. Floyd still deserves such a monument.

Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is an Augusta historian, author and director of the Center for Study of Georgia History at Georgia Regents University-Augusta. 

This article appears in the February/March 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine. 

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