Closer look at Episcopal scholarship, once limited to white recipients, reveals donor had slaveholding roots

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 8, 2020

William Lygon Corbin and Claude Florence Corbin died within months of each other in 1918 and 1919 and are buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: George Seitz

[Episcopal News Service] In November 1992, North Carolina Bishop Robert Estill received a letter marked “privileged and confidential” from The Episcopal Church’s Office of the Treasurer in New York. The intention of the letter, drafted the week before Thanksgiving, was to inform Estill of the criteria that diocesan bishops in seven Southern states had been using for decades to nominate scholarship recipients from a charitable entity known as the Corbin Trust.

The trust had been established according to the terms of a will left by Claude Florence Corbin, a 42-year-old woman who died in 1919 of multiple sclerosis in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today, a century after her death, The Episcopal Church still distributes thousands of dollars each year on behalf of the Corbin Trust to college students and seminarians from 15 dioceses, yet details of this benefactor’s life are unknown to most Episcopalians.

An echo of that life can be heard in the specificity of the terms that Estill was asked to review. The criteria for scholarships were as racist as they were clear: Recipients should come from Southern states. Corbin’s will preferred they be Episcopalian. It insisted they be white.

To varying degrees, church leaders accommodated that overt discrimination throughout most of the 20th century and into the early 2000s. By the 1990s, Southern bishops who objected were told they had no legal recourse to change the terms of an independent trust. They either accepted the conditions on the money or had to refuse to nominate anyone from their dioceses for the non-competitive scholarships. The church finally stopped heeding the will’s offensive terms in 2004, thanks in part to prodding by one of Estill’s successors, North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry, the South’s first Black diocesan bishop.

“It wasn’t shocking. I mean, I knew our history,” Curry, now The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, said in a phone interview with Episcopal News Service. “I knew stuff like that existed,” he said, referring to other examples in church finances of discriminatory language that officials had successfully removed or simply disregarded. “Nobody wanted to continue it that way.”

Until now, the fuller story of the Corbin Trust’s racist origins, including a connection to slavery and the Confederacy, has remained untold, despite The Episcopal Church’s 30-year commitment to examining and confronting its own racism and its past complicity in racist systems. Even the 2004 elimination of the Corbin scholarships’ racial bias isn’t widely known and only came to light this year, when Curry shared that story during a webinar on racism and policing reform led by Southern bishops from the church’s Province IV.

Catherine Meeks, executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta, Georgia, moderated the bishops’ July 9 webinar. She told ENS later that, like Curry, she wasn’t surprised that a church scholarship once promoted discrimination.

“I was surprised a little that it was going on as late as when Bishop Curry was bishop of North Carolina,” Meeks said. “But you know, the problem was a lot of people … either didn’t know about it or decided to hold their noses and recommend white people to get the money and tried to make their peace with the discriminatory practices.”

The example of the Corbin Trust holds particular resonance this year. Widespread protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the United States have drawn attention to the continuing problem of systemic racism – the bias and discrimination found in churches, police departments and other American institutions, perpetuated not by racist individuals but as the bitter legacy of earlier generations’ embrace and embodiment of white supremacy.

“Some of the discriminatory spirit continues to linger around the edges of our lives, without people paying much attention to the roots,” Meeks said.

Presiding Bishop on policing webinar

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in a video for a July 9 webinar hosted by the church’s Province IV bishops, shares the story of how he first learned about the Corbin Trust’s formerly discriminatory terms.

The Episcopal Church elevated racial reconciliation to one of its top priorities in 2015, the same year it elected Curry as its first Black presiding bishop. In December that year, the church’s corporate entity, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, or DFMS, received a letter from Wells Fargo as trustee for the Corbin Trust. The letter updated the church on distribution of the year’s $40,000 in scholarships. A decade after the church had ended discrimination in awarding the scholarships, Wells Fargo likewise made no reference to the recipients’ race, though ENS was unable to determine when or why the trustee made that change.

The Wells Fargo letter specified the source of the money as The Claude Florence Corbin Trust. It did not say who Claude Florence Corbin was, nor did it explain why a middle-aged Philadelphia woman almost a century ago would leave a will stipulating her money should go only to “white children and white young men and white young women of the Protestant faith.”

An older church document, from the 1930s, offers the beginnings of an explanation. It is a DFMS memo on “Outside Trusts.” Though the memo affirms this trust was established by “Claude F. Corbin,” it also connects the trust to a different name: William Lygon Corbin.

His is hardly a familiar name in the church, but ENS was able to determine through its research that Corbin was a descendant of prominent Virginia colonists, whose family owned dozens of slaves and who served on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Lively, rambling adulthood preceded enduring gift to the church

William Lygon Corbin was 73 when he died on Dec. 29, 1918, in Philadelphia. The city had been hit hard by severe outbreaks of that year’s deadly flu pandemic, but his death certificate listed the cause of death not as influenza but as “heart disease.”

He was taken to Richmond, Virginia, and buried at Hollywood Cemetery. A brief obituary in the Times-Dispatch, a Richmond newspaper, described him as part of a “prominent Virginia family,” giving no hint at the decades he had spent following business and romantic interests to all corners of the United States.

William Lygon Corbin is seen in an undated photo included in a genealogical study of the Corbin family compiled by Return Jonathan Meigs.

Corbin had married Claude Montgomery in 1904 in Boston, Massachusetts. The daughter of an Irish immigrant, Montgomery at 28 was less than half his age when she became his third wife. The marriage registry lists the groom as “retired,” as well as both a divorcé and a widower.

What little is known about their marriage can be found in a 1910 genealogy column in the Times-Dispatch. It describes her as “a young art student of New Orleans.” After marrying, the Corbins lived “nominally” in Philadelphia, “but most of their time is spent in travel.”

ENS was not able to find any direct connection between William Lygon Corbin and The Episcopal Church, though when Claude Corbin died on April 4, 1919, and was buried next to him in Richmond, the funeral service was led by the Rev. William Cox, rector of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, according to a funeral receipt.

Finding evidence of William Lygon Corbin’s ramblings as an adult, on the other hand, was not so difficult.

He married his first wife, Ella Leonard, in Alabama in May 1868, and as a young couple they lived in a boarding house in Selma, online genealogical records show. They later moved to Houston, Texas, where William Lygon Corbin took a job as a clerk for the Houston and Texas Central Railway.

Census records from 1880 identify Ella Corbin as a church organist and show the family had grown to include a 3-year-old son named James. The young son’s fate, however, is a mystery. ENS found no other reference to him, and one study of the Corbin family tree indicates William Lygon Corbin left no surviving children when he died.

The fate of his first wife also remains unclear. In August 1888, he married his second wife, Marion Phelps, in New Mexico. By then, he was a railroad clerk based in Albuquerque, and records from that time connect him to a real estate speculator named Conrad Shenfield.

Shenfield was a key figure in the development of Kingman, Arizona, as a railroad town in the 1880s. Historical accounts suggest he ran into some trouble for selling plots of land there before he fully owned them. Even so, upon his death in 1888, his will left some of his remaining townsites to “W.L. Corbin,” identified by the Mohave County Miner newspaper as Shenfield’s “faithful agent.”

Other records show Corbin working in New Mexico for the Albuquerque Gas Company, as the company’s secretary and gas works superintendent. By 1895, an Albuquerque Journal article said he had moved on to become “a hardware dealer” in Belton, Texas. While visiting friends in Albuquerque, he told the Journal he maintained “a strong love for the city and its climate.”

His wanderings didn’t end there. By 1900, he was living in a Tacoma, Washington, boarding house called the Hotel Bostwick and working as a financial agent. No wife is listed.

In ‘prominent Virginia family,’ generations benefited from slavery

Corbin’s story also goes backward in time, to the mid-1600s and the plantations of Middlesex County, Virginia.

“Great names took root in Middlesex,” the Times-Dispatch said in its 1910 genealogy column. “It was the Virginia nursery of the Berkeleys, the Wormeleys, the Churchills, the Corbins.”

The Corbins traced their ancestry to Henry Corbin, born in England around 1628. He arrived in Virginia in 1654, according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia, and within a few years, he would serve as a county judge and member of Virginia’s General Assembly. In 1660, he purchased “several large and valuable properties,” including land in what soon would become Middlesex County, near the mouth of the Rappahannock River.

The Corbins were prominent Anglican lay leaders in Colonial Virginia. Henry Corbin served as a vestry member of the parish in Middlesex County. His son, Gawin Corbin, later did the same at Stratton Major Parish in King and Queen County, between Middlesex County and Richmond. And Gawin Corbin’s son, Richard Corbin, in addition to serving as warden at his father’s parish, donated land for a new church in 1760, according to research by Jeffrey Scheib at William & Mary.

Richard Corbin’s historical influence eclipsed even that of his father and grandfather. A successful tobacco planter and county judge, he was appointed by King George II in 1750 to serve Virginia on the governor’s council and later became lieutenant governor. He was “a force to be reckoned with during his 15 years on the Council,” according to the Library of Virginia’s biography, and among those who pressed him for favors was George Washington, who was seeking a lieutenant colonel appointment.

During the American Revolution, most of the Corbin family remained loyal to Britain, though Richard Corbin was “respected by both Loyalists and Revolutionaries,” the Library of Virginia says. He died in 1790 a wealthy man. His landholdings were among the largest in Virginia.

The Corbins’ vast holdings also included humans.

Richard Corbin inherited at least 50 slaves from his father. His letters refer to various purchases of clothing for those slaves, including “16 doz. Pair of Negroes’ stockings,” and in 1759, he advised his estate manager to be kind but orderly in their treatment, so they would continue laboring productively in his tobacco fields.

“Observe a prudent and a watchful conduct over the overseers, that they attend their business with diligence, keep the Negroes in good order and enforce obedience by the example of their own industry,” Corbin wrote.

Richard Corbin’s youngest son, Francis Corbin, participated in the state convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788. The younger Corbin “objected to slavery on both moral and economic grounds,” according to the Library of Virginia, but still left an estate with an estimated 70 slaves when he died in 1821.

Francis Corbin had nine children. His fifth son, John Sawbridge Corbin, had seven children. And the second of those seven was William Lygon Corbin, born Aug. 23, 1845.

Slave schedule at Corbin farm

A page from a Virginia “slave schedule” included in the 1860 federal census shows entries for each of the 27 Black men, women and children (bottom of left column and top of right column) who were enslaved at the farm of John Sawbridge Corbin in Hanover County.

The 1860 federal census shows John Sawbridge Corbin and his family living just outside Richmond in Hanover County, Virginia. He reported his occupation as farmer. William Lygon Corbin, part of the sixth generation of Corbins in North America, was just 15 the year before the Civil War started.

The census reveals another detail about his childhood. In 1860, five Black men, four Black women and 18 Black children were listed as his father’s possession, and those 27 ranged in age from 1 to 60. Corbin grew up among his family’s slaves.

During the Civil War, the teenage Corbin initially served the Confederacy as a Treasury Department clerk and later in a Richmond-based battalion, the Times-Dispatch genealogy column said. When the Confederacy conceded defeat in April 1865, Corbin had not yet turned 20.

His family relocated to Selma, and a long life lay ahead of him. Eventually, his slaveholding childhood and Confederate service would be nearly forgotten.

Church confronts Corbin’s racist legacy: ‘Too high a price to pay’

What became of the former slaves on the Corbins’ farm is unclear. The census counted them; it did not name them.

Their descendants may never have known their connection to William Lygon Corbin, but if they remained in the South and were to have applied for the scholarship in his name, The Episcopal Church would have allowed Corbin a posthumous say in the decision – rejection for the color of their skin.

Whether or not Claude Corbin personally shared the racial sentiments of her husband, her will sealed his legacy. One-fourth of the Corbins’ estate was used to establish the Corbin Trust, its annual income given to the church with explicit instructions on how it should be used:

“For educational, vocation and avocational purposes among the white children and white young men and white young women of the Protestant faith, preferably Episcopalian, in the Southern states of the United States,” the will said. It went on to specify those states as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

The conditions of the trust first sparked documented tension among the Episcopal bishops in those states in the mid-1990s. In North Carolina, Estill had continued to nominate candidates despite the racial restrictions. His successor, Bishop Robert Johnson, did so as well, even after at least one of the Southern bishops in 1996 chose not to nominate anyone, according to a summary of correspondence provided by the diocese. It isn’t clear from the correspondence which Southern bishop objected that year.

“After due consideration, Bishop Johnson would like to continue the relationship as it is,” his assistant said in an October 1996 letter to The Episcopal Church’s treasurer. “There most certainly are many members of the majority population in need of financial assistance to pursue higher education.”

Bishop Frank Vest

Bishop Frank Vest led the Diocese of Southern Virginia from 1991 to 1998.

In 1997, Southern Virginia Bishop Frank Vest took the most outspoken approach in opposing the trust’s terms. In a letter to the other 14 diocesan bishops and Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, Vest said he initially had gone along with the Corbin scholarships’ racist criteria, thinking “no money going to God’s work is tainted.”

“I have now come to a different place,” he continued. “My own sense is that to compromise the integrity of the church by continuing to perpetuate the conditions of that trust is too high a price to pay. Maybe if the income from the trust funds were several million dollars I could be bought, but it’s not enough. I do hope all of you will reconsider.”

Some joined Vest in refusing the money. Others continued to accept it.

In April 2000, Johnson made his last nomination for a scholarship from the Corbin Trust. Two months later, he joined in consecrating his successor, Curry, a descendant of enslaved Africans.

Curry nominated two recipients for the Corbin Trust scholarships in 2001, before he became aware of the racially discriminatory criteria. An archivist’s summary of diocesan correspondence shows that later, in August 2001, his office received an inquiry from a recipient’s family in the Diocese of East Carolina, saying the family was disturbed by a phone call from someone asking to confirm that the recipient was white. The summary doesn’t indicate why Curry’s office was contacted, and the Diocese of North Carolina declined to provide ENS with further information about that call. It also isn’t clear who would have been verifying nominees’ credentials.

Curry, in his video for this year’s webinar with the Province IV bishops, described the moment his secretary, Sara Jo Manning, explained to him that only white candidates were allowed to be nominated. She came into his office, her blushing face a deep red.

“Sara Jo is a classic Southern lady, a dear woman of God. She wouldn’t be the kind of person that would be that red,” Curry said.

She handed him a piece of paper and said he should read it. It was about the Corbin Trust scholarships’ criteria, including the racist language laid out in the Corbin will. “I remember saying, ‘Well, Sarah Jo, now I see why you’re red. You can’t tell that I’m red, but I am.’”

In May 2002, Curry wrote to The Episcopal Church’s treasurer. “I cannot in good conscience nominate someone from the Diocese of North Carolina as long as the terms of the trust are allowed to stand,” he said, and he offered to help find a solution, one in which the terms would “comply with the teaching of the Gospel.”

Ralph O’Hara, the treasurer at the time, responded by saying that past attempts to legally change the terms of the trust had been unsuccessful. “We are bound to honor the designation of the donor, regardless of how we may feel about it.”

Kurt Barnes

Kurt Barnes has served as treasurer of The Episcopal Church since 2003 and also holds the title of chief financial officer. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

A year later, however, Kurt Barnes took over as The Episcopal Church’s treasurer. Barnes told ENS that he, too, was uncomfortable about honoring the trust’s conditions. His assistant informed him that Curry was refusing the money because of those terms.

“That’s when I started to ask, well, can’t we ignore the discriminatory language?” Barnes said. Declining to nominate anyone just meant that more money went to the nominees from other dioceses based on the trust’s criteria. “I wasn’t opposed to that, but I thought if bishops are declining because of the language, let’s either change the language or ignore the language.”

The church receives a benefit from the trust but doesn’t control it. Previous church officials had investigated the option of going to court to strip that language from the trust, but the cost of such a legal action was deemed prohibitive, Barnes said.

Instead, Barnes and other church officials, based on their attorneys’ analysis, concluded in 2004 that under the law, the will’s command to award money only to white recipients was “invidious, noncharitable and therefore unenforceable.” Since then, the Corbin Trust scholarships have been open to nominees of all races.

Curry prefers not to overstate his own role in pushing to end discrimination in the scholarship, saying his main contribution was the fresh perspective of a Black bishop in a Southern diocese. All previous Southern bishops who had read the conditions had been white. “I don’t think anybody Black had seen it,” he told ENS.

Meeks, the Absalom Jones Center executive director, said some white bishops may have justified their actions by saying the good done by the white scholarship recipients made up for the racist conditions. “But that’s not totally true,” she said. The underlying racism persists, and “if you don’t excise it, you support it.”

Meeks also warned against assuming that excising vestiges of the church’s past racism guarantees a spirit of racial healing today. It also is important to remember that past, she said, “because who you were is still part of the story.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at Additional research assistance was provided by Lynn Hoke of the Diocese of North Carolina, Julia Randle of the Diocese of Virginia, Wayne Kempton of the Diocese of New York and staff of the Archives of The Episcopal Church.