Benjamin O. and Portia Bird
Benjamin Oliver Bird, the founding principal of the Delaware Conference Academy, was born in Loudon County, Va., before the Civil War not far from the site of abolitionist John Brown’s historic 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry armory.
Following his father’s death, Bird and his family moved to Gettysburg, Pa., where he labored by day and studied at night. A young boy during the Civil War, Bird did not learn the alphabet until he was an adolescent.
Determined to better his circumstances, Bird enrolled in Baltimore’s Centenary Biblical Institute in 1877 and graduated from the “normal course” a year later. He immediately joined the faculty of his alma mater, where he taught until being appointed principal of its new satellite campus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
When the father of nine children and his wife arrived in Princess Anne in the summer of 1886, there was little joy or reason for optimism the new venture would succeed.
Money was limited and accommodations bleak, not to mention attitudes in a community uncomfortable that blacks in its midst were pursuing an education. Nonetheless, Bird never wavered in preparing the Academy for its intended purpose. With the sweat of his brow, and in the face of adversity, he cleared the land and renovated a Colonial-era mansion to make accommodations for his wife, their children and most of his students.
Not only did Bird literally build the Academy, he served as an instructor, mentor and friend to many who passed through its doors. In its first 11 years under Bird, records indicate 53 students graduated from the Academy and a dining room as well as boys’ and girls’ dormitories were built.
After Bird died on April 26, 1897, at age 41*, his wife of nearly 17 years, Portia, took on the task of managing the Academy.
Born in Clark County, Va., on Feb. 10, 1859, Portia E. Lovett Bird was a graduate of Storer Normal School in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., which was founded to train blacks to be teachers. An accomplished soprano, at age 14 she was as a member of the school's chorus that performed 41 concerts during an 1873 tour that took the singers as far north as Buffalo, N.Y., according to a note accompanying a picture of the group in West Virginia University's archives.
As an adult, Mrs. Bird helped her husband by serving as a teacher at the Academy. She was its first female leader from 1897 until her death on Nov. 25, 1899.
Jacob C. Dunn, an instructor at the Academy alongside the Birds, described Mrs. Bird as a "Christian woman, refined, polite and loved by all who know her well." Mrs. Bird also was known for her quiet philanthropy who arranged for a "well-filled basket" to be left at "the door of someone in need."
One of the Birds' children, Crystal Dreda Bird, was a historic figure in her own right. Four-year-old Crystal went to live with a relative in Boston when her mother died. She studied at Columbia University and in 1938 became the nation's first black woman to serve in a state legislature when Philadelphia voters elected her to Pennsylvania's General Assembly. Her activism on behalf of African-American women attracted the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she served as a Civil Defense race relations advisor.
-- KIMBERLY CONWAY DUMPSON
* - There are conflicting accounts of Benjamin Bird's birth year: Aug. 14, 1855 is the more widely accepted; a 20th century headstone on his grave in the campus cemetery is inscribed with Aug. 11. 1853.