Robert Kerlin in his classroom at VMI, 1918Robert T. Kerlin Resources

Research by Cadet Fredrick Walker, VMI Class of 2015

Cadet Fredrick Walker’s work for the Robert T. Kerlin website was done as part of a Field Work project in the Department of English, Rhetoric, and Humanistic Studies. Field Work projects allow cadets to apply their classroom learning in a professional or service learning environment and showcase their skills in research, analysis, and communication.

About Robert T. Kerlin

Dr. Robert Thomas Kerlin served as a professor, minister, soldier, author, and civil rights activist. Born on March 22, 1866, in Harrison County, Missouri to Kentucky natives, Kerlin had humble beginnings. His father owned several small farms which specialized in the raising and selling of Berkshire hogs and Southdown sheep. The Civil War, however, robbed the Kerlin family of all but their land. Following his father’s death in 1874, the eight year old Robert went to work on the family farms.

Despite his family’s financial woes, the young Kerlin was able to attend school for up to five months each year. In the spring of 1882, at the age of seventeen, Kerlin earned his teaching certificate and began his educational career at the Albany County Public School. In the fall of 1884, at the age of eighteen, he began his pursuit of higher education at Central College in Fayette, Missouri. Over the next several years he completed graduate work in the fields of English, History, and Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, and Yale (where he earned his Doctor of Philosophy in 1906). Kerlin went on to serve as a professor of English at several institutions including Missouri Valley College; Southwestern University; Yale; The State Normal School in Farmville, Virginia; and the Virginia Military Institute.

From 1895 until 1898 Dr. Kerlin served as a minister in the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church where he later participated in the compiling of a new church hymnal. He extended his ministry into the armed forces by serving as a chaplain with the Third Missouri Volunteers during the Spanish-American War. His time in the military inspired Kerlin to write The Camp Life of the Third Regiment -one of his many internationally renowned books. In the words of London, England’s The Spectator, “No other work deals so exhaustively and scientifically with the matters of which he wrote.” Kerlin’s other writings include: The Voice of The Negro, Contemporary Poetry of the Negro, The Church of the Fathers, Theocritus in English Literature, and Mainly for Myself.

Kerlin and the VMI Controversy
Dr. Kerlin served as a professor and Department Head of English at VMI from 1910 to 1921. In June 1921, his troubles began when his “Open Letter to the Governor of Arkansas” appeared in the “radical”, anti-segregation publication The Nation. He wrote this letter in response to the news that ninety-two African-American men had been sentenced to life in prison or execution following the Elaine Riot. The riot was an uprising which ensued after a gathering of African-American men, women, and children were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan at their church in Hoop Spur, Arkansas. In the days following the attack, fifty to sixty African-Americans were killed while attempting to defend themselves from their attackers.

Six of the African-Americans arrested were sentenced to death by the governor. In his letter, Kerlin urged Governor Thomas C. McRae to “take the matter into [his] private chamber and give it an hour’s consideration, as before the Eternal Judge”. By quoting sections of the Bible, the Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights, Kerlin hoped to dissuade the governor from executing the prisoners on June 10, 1921.

When the VMI Board of Visitors learned of his letter, Kerlin was dismissed from the faculty of the Institute in 1921. Other charges brought against Dr. Kerlin by the Board included the subsequent “protests of citizens of Arkansas”, “protests of VMI alumni in Detroit”, and Kerlin’s “lecturing in Lynchburg, Petersburg, Norfolk, and Richmond to African-Americans in African-American churches”.  Even after his harsh treatment, Dr. Kerlin continued to serve as an advocate for racial equality which led to his unpopularity throughout the South. Despite his poor reception at VMI, Dr. Robert T. Kerlin played a major role in the civil rights struggle of Virginia.

View Full Text resources

Timeline - additional biographical details

Annotated Bibliography

Autobiography, holograph manuscript, ca. 1912
Page 1  & Page 2, "Open Letter to Governor of Arkansas," June 1921.  The document that led to Kerlin's dismissal from VMI
Kerlin's testimony before the Board of Visitors, June 1921
Robert Kerlin Statement to the Board of Visitors, August 1921.
VMI Board of Visitors Resolution,  August 1921. Kerlin is fired from his position as Professor of English
List of Offenses, 1922. Summary of the VMI case against Professor Kerlin

Kerlin with his daughter, 1912
Kerlin in his classroom at VMI, 1918 (larger view of image at top right)
Kerlin at Verdun, France, 1919
Harvard Divinity School class photograph (external site)

Additional material is located in Kerlin's biographical file in the VMI Archives.  Contact the VMI Archives  for information.

Cadet Walker would like to extend a special thanks to his faculty advisor for the project, LTC Pennie Ticen. He would also like to thank Ms. Catharine Gilliam, COL Emily Miller, Dr Brandon Coffey,  COL Diane Jacob, and Ms. Mary Laura Kludy.