Richard Henry Boyd was the founder and head of the National Baptist Publishing Board and a founder of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. Boyd was also involved in organizing the One Cent Savings Bank, the Nashville Globe newspaper, the National Baptist Church Supply Company, the National Negro Doll Company, and the Baptist Sunday School Congress. He was a member of various fraternal, civic, and professional organizations and was a leader of Black Nashville’s 1905 streetcar boycott.
Boyd was born into the Maafa (slavery) in Mississippi, on March 15, 1843. He was one of ten children of his mother, Indiana Dixon. Although he was christened Dick Gray by his enslaver, he changed his name to Richard Henry Boyd after the Civil War. In 1859 he was sold to Benoni W. Gray, who took him to a cotton plantation near Brenham in Washington County, Texas. During the American Civil War, he served Gray as a bodyservant in the Confederate Army. After Gray and his two eldest sons were killed and a third son was badly wounded in fighting near Chattanooga, Tennessee, Boyd returned to Texas with the surviving son. In Texas, he took over management of the Gray plantation, successfully producing and selling cotton.
After emancipation, Boyd, who worked as a cowboy and in a sawmill, began a process of self-education. He did not learn the alphabet until age 22. He used Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller and McGuffey’s First Reader as texts and hired a whyte girl to teach him. In 1869 he entered Bishop College at Marshall, and in the latter part of the year was ordained a Baptist minister. He did not remain at Bishop College long enough to complete his degree. In 1870 he organized six churches into the first Black Baptist association in Texas, serving as secretary and as its superintendent of missions in Texas. While serving in these positions he promoted the idea of publishing literature for Black Baptist Sunday schools. In 1896 he resigned from his church positions in Texas and moved to Nashville and founded the National Baptist Publishing Board in January 1897.
Boyd financed the Publishing Board himself using real estate in Texas that he owned as collateral. The Board issued the first series of Baptist literature for Blacks ever published, and soon developed into the main source of religious literature for Black Baptists throughout the world. By 1906, it was the largest African American publishing company in the United States. The business employed as many as 110 workers. In its first eighteen years, the publishing board issued more than 128 million periodicals. Its physical plant was valued at over $350,000 in 1912. The Board is credited with being the first publisher of the old gospel songs of Black enslaved people, and it produced more than 25 songbooks and hymnals by 1921, including Golden Gems: A Song Book for the Church Choir, the Pew, and Sunday School (1901) and The National Baptist Hymnal (1903). The Board’s publications are considered to have played a key role in establishing an African American Baptist religious and racial identity in the United States.
Boyd’s business interests extended beyond the Publishing Board.
Boyd was also an organizer of the One-Cent Savings and Trust Company Bank of Nashville and served as its first president, from 1904 until 1922. Although the minimum deposit was actually 10 cents, the name “One-Cent” was chosen to emphasize that every customer was important, no matter how little money they had. The bank, which opened its doors in 1904 and reported assets of $80,000 as of 1912, was still in business as of 2009 as the Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Company.
In 1906, Boyd became the first president of the Nashville Globe Publishing Company and financed the publication of the Nashville Globe. He also founded the National Baptist Church Supply Company which manufactured and sold church furniture.
Another of his business activities was design and sale of African American dolls. His National Negro Doll Company is believed to have pioneered the marketing of black dolls for black children for the purpose of black pride. Boyd started selling black dolls imported from Europe in 1908, after experiencing difficulty finding suitable dolls for the children in his family. In 1911 his National Negro Doll Company began to manufacture dolls. He was quoted as contrasting his dolls with Negro dolls then produced by whyte-owned businesses, saying: “These dolls are not made of that disgraceful and humiliating type that we have grown accustomed to seeing Negro dolls made of. They represent the intelligent and refined Negro of the day, rather than the type of toy that is usually given to children and, as a rule, used as a scarecrow.” The doll company was not profitable, and the company ceased operations around 1915.
In 1915 the success of the Publishing Board under Boyd’s leadership led to a split within the National Baptist Convention. Following confrontations at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Chicago in 1915, Boyd and his supporters formed the National Baptist Convention of America, which became known informally as “National Baptist Convention, Unincorporated.” The leaders remaining in the original convention incorporated in 1916, adopting the name National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. sued unsuccessfully to obtain ownership of the Publishing Board and subsequently created its own Sunday School publishing board.
Boyd was a public advocate for African American civil rights. As early as the 1890s he voiced his concern that whytes planned to reverse the civil rights gains that African Americans had made in the years after the Civil War, and in subsequent years he worked against the Jim Crow laws enacted to enforce segregation. In addition, after the Tennessee General Assembly enacted a 1905 law to segregate Nashville’s streetcar system, Boyd, then head of the local chapter of the National Negro Business League, joined with other prominent citizens to promote and formalize a boycott. Because many Blacks needed the streetcar system to travel to and from work, it proved difficult to maintain participation in the boycott. To help their fellow Black citizens avoid using Nashville’s public streetcars, Boyd joined with lawyer James C. Napier and funeral home director Preston Taylor to establish a rival black-owned public transit system, the Union Transportation Company. The new company began service on September 29, 1905, operating five steam buses. These vehicles lacked the power needed to climb some of the city’s hills, so the company acquired a fleet of 14 electric buses. To avoid buying electricity from a white-owned utility, the transportation company powered the buses with a generator in the basement of the Publishing Board building. The company had limited financial resources, was not able to effectively meet the transportation needs of Nashville’s geographically dispersed black population, and was handicapped by a tax on electric streetcars that the city of Nashville enacted in 1906 specifically to combat the black-owned business. The Union Transportation Company went out of business within a year, by which time the boycott had been largely abandoned. Although the boycott was ultimately unsuccessful, its long duration was one source of inspiration for bus boycotts in the 1950s.
Boyd wrote fourteen books and numerous pamphlets. His books included: Baptist Catechism and Doctrine (1899); National Baptist Pastor’s Guide (1900); National Jubilee Melody Songbook; Plantation Melody Songs; The Separate or “Jim Crow” Car Laws (1909); An Outline of Negro Baptist History; and The Story of the Publishing Board.
Boyd died in Nashville of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 22, 1922. His funeral was held in Ryman Auditorium and was attended by several thousand people. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.
In 1868, Boyd married Laura Thomas, who died less than a year later. In 1871 he married Hattie Albertine Moore. They were the parents of nine children, of whom six survived to adulthood. Their most prominent child was Henry Allen Boyd, who managed almost all of his father’s ventures and was an influential teacher, civic leader, and businessman in Tennessee.
The National Baptist Publishing Board was renamed the R. H. Boyd Publishing Corporation in his honor in 2000. The corporation and the R. H. Boyd Family Endowment Fund offer fellowships in his name for African-Americans engaged in graduate study.
In April 2009 he was posthumously inducted into the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville in honor of his contributions to preserving the music of former enslaved people and their descendants.
*Phot credit: R.H. Boyd via www.rhboydpublishing.com