She was a woman ahead of her time.
An astute businesswoman and investor, a philanthropist, a humanitarian and a staunch member of her faith, Emily Thomas Tubman was all of these in a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote.
On Sunday, March 19, members of Augusta’s First Christian Church will honor the 223rd anniversary of Tubman’s birth. It was her generosity that built the historic structure at the corner of Seventh and Greene streets.
“It is said that she funded it all, at a cost of $106,000,” said Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta.
Completed in 1875, the structure is a mixture of architectural styles including Romanesque revival and Gothic revival. Much of the church sanctuary is still the same as it was when it was constructed with the exception of the interior walls. At one time, there were frescos painted on them, but they were painted over. It also has a 168-foot-tall steeple.
Tubman was born March 21, 1794, in Virginia. In 1818, she visited cousins in the area and stayed the winter in the home of Nicholas Ware, an Augusta mayor and U.S. senator, whose home has been known as Ware’s Folly and is now used as the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art. It was called Ware’s Folly because he spent $40,000, an enormous sum in 1818 when it was built.
Tubman met her husband, Richard, on that visit to Augusta, and the couple were married. He was a wealthy English planter and died about 18 years after they married, leaving her with quite a bit of wealth and a hard request.
“In his will, he directed that all of his slaves be freed, which was easier said than done in Georgia when he died in 1836,” said Montgomery.
There was a movement to send those slaves who desired back to Africa and the nation of Liberia was established for this purpose. One of the descendants of Tubman’s former slaves served as Liberia’s president in the 1940s and 1950s.
Not only was she generous, but Tubman was a shrewd businesswoman, taking her wealth and investing it.
Dr. Edward Cashin called Tubman “a queen of industry as well as society” and a “benefactress extraordinary” in his book, The Story of Augusta.
She was co-founder of the John P. King Manufacturing Co. and invested heavily in the Georgia Railroad.
Montgomery said that while much of her giving was documented, she liked to make anonymous donations as well.
Raised as a Baptist, Tubman didn’t join a Baptist church in Augusta. Richard was an Episcopalian, and Montgomery said legend has it that Richard was buried beneath St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. That church has had several buildings, and the one Richard was supposedly buried under was destroyed in the fire of 1916. There is no proof to support the legend, Montgomery said.
Emily Tubman became interested in the teachings of Alexander Campbell, who along with Barton Stone, would create what would become the Christian or Disciples of Christ church.
In 1850, Tubman sent James Lamar to college in Bethany, W.Va. for the purpose of becoming a Disciples of Christ pastor, and he became the pastor of First Christian Church in Augusta around 1852. Lamar was also the father of Joseph Lamar, who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lamar’s childhood friend was President Woodrow Wilson who lived next door on Seventh Street.
The initial Christian church in Augusta was located on Reynolds Street and was also given to the church by Tubman. It was later used as a school for girls. That building was another casualty of the 1916 fire. Another school in her name was built on Walton Way in 1917.
Not only did she give money for the First Christian Church in Augusta to be built, but she gave money to establish other churches in the denomination in other cities such as Frankfurt, Ky., Atlanta, Athens, Savannah and Sandersville, Ga. She donated money not only for the churches’ construction, but for the pastors’ salaries as well. She also gave money to colleges.
Tubman died in 1885, and in her will, she continued to provide for the First Christian Church. She’s buried in Kentucky, where she spent her summers away from the threat of yellow fever.
The former manse, or parsonage, is attached to the church and is now used as a space to sell antiques. Funds raised through Emily’s Shoppes go toward the church. One project they are raising money for is the steeple, according to church member Nila Wicker.
“It was last restored in 1990,” she said.