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Holly Knoll: The legacy behind Dr. Robert Moton and rumor of a speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. possibly wrote there

A longtime rumor about Holly Knoll claims Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his “I Have a Dream” speech while visiting there.
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 9:05 PM EST
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GLOUCESTER Co., Va. (WWBT) - For decades, it has been rumored that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his “I Have a Dream Speech” at a historic home in Gloucester County called Holly Knoll. The house belonged to Dr. Robert Russa Moton, one of the most respected Black leaders of the early 20th century, who has a deep legacy of his own.

A hidden gem along the banks of the York River, where perhaps one could be fixated on the peaceful views, Holly Knoll was once a meeting place for leaders of the Civil Rights movement. However, long before then, it was the retirement home of Dr. Robert Russa Moton. He was the great-great-uncle of Avis Thomas, who learned of her connection to the Civil Rights giant in the 90s when her mother came to her with an article. She was in high school at the time.

“To know Dr. Moton then would be the same as hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, so that’s why it’s so strange to me that he has become one of America’s forgotten heroes,” said Thomas, in a well-decorated living room on the first floor of Holly Knoll.

“He was an extraordinary educator, businessman and family man,” said Thomas, proudly.

Dr. Robert Russa Moton
Dr. Robert Russa Moton(Encyclopedia Virginia)

Thomas has been on a mission to bring the contributions of Dr. Moton out of the shadows of history, with hopes of getting his story and a statue in the Black History and Cultural Center of Virginia and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of ties in history that people generally know about are tied to him,” Thomas said.

Dr. Moton was born on a plantation in Amelia County, just two years after the Civil War. His parents, who were once enslaved, taught him how to read early on in life, opening the door to a world of endless possibilities.

Dr. Moton would later become a graduate of what is now Hampton University, where he befriended fellow Virginian Booker T. Washington, whom he succeeded as the second president of what was then the Tuskegee Institute.

“He was actually the one who wrote the original [training] program for the Tuskegee Airmen and bought the original plane,” said a very passion-filled Thomas.

The only Black leader to advise five presidents, Dr. Moton, was also behind the integration of Black medical staff at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital. That is only a glimpse of the work towards equality he is credited for. In 1922, Dr. Moton delivered the keynote address at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

Moten at the Lincoln Memorial
Moten at the Lincoln Memorial(National Park Service)

“He wanted diversity, inclusion, and equity among African Americans in this country,” said Thomas, who is hopeful people will take more time to learn about him.

In 1935, Dr. Moton retired with his wife to their house, Holly Knoll, built on the edge of Gloucester County near Capahosic, where a replica of his childhood home remains and relics like a wooden desk in his bedroom suite.

For decades, it has been rumored that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his "I Have a...
For decades, it has been rumored that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his "I Have a dream Speech" at a historic home in Gloucester County called Holly Knoll.

After he died in 1940, the home was renamed the Moton Conference Center and became the birthplace of the United Negro College Fund.

For years, some of the nation’s most prominent leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, have stayed at the home now owned by The Gloucester Institute. The non-profit, founded in 2005 by the honorable Kay Coles James, trains future leaders of tomorrow.

Winona Coles is the executive director of the institute.

“Back in the day, this was the place to come to discuss anything dealing with the Civil Rights movement,” said Coles, comfortably seated in a white, wooden rocking chair on the porch of the historic home. “They had private meetings that a lot of people didn’t know were taking place.”

Since many of those meetings were secret for safety reasons, the truth behind a decades-long rumor that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his I Have a Dream speech while sitting on a stone bench beneath a 400-year-old oak tree remains elusive. There is no tangible evidence of the occurrence, just oral history.

“He may have done some of his writing here, but I can’t document that any of his speeches were actually written here,” Coles said.

For decades, it has been rumored that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his "I Have a...
For decades, it has been rumored that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his "I Have a dream Speech" at a historic home in Gloucester County called Holly Knoll.

She said they too have tried to verify the famous rumor, even contacting the King Center as NBC12 did, but Coles oftentimes said King’s trips were not documented due to danger.

“Some people say it was so close to the times he actually spoke in Virginia or other events or headed to Washington. So, they think something was written here,” said Coles when asked how the rumor potentially started.

So, even though the mystery continues around the late Civil Rights leader’s stay, the legacy of Dr. Moton is slowly gaining light in the place he holds in history.

Today, the Gloucester Institute opens the home, conference center, and housing spaces around Holly Knoll for seminars, workshops and church retreats.

You are welcome to contact the institute for a visit.

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