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Rev. B.H. Hester – Neutral On Nothing

The African American church has always played an important role in the lifeways of our communities; whether it was African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) or Baptist, the Black church has been the catalyst for social change since the early 1800s. Its leaders have been on the front lines of social justice advocacy, planning and organizing; and reminding an unrepentant society that all of God’s children were created equal. While many of these leaders are known to us on a national level—there were plenty of others who did the work to bring about change in communities large and small all across America. One of those leaders lived right here in Fredericksburg: Rev. B.H. Hester.

Rev. Hester is known for his forty (40) years of service to Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) and her parishioners. There are, however, some other interesting facts about Rev. Hester that are not as widely known, such as he owned several apartment buildings in what was called “Crow Foot Bottoms”. It was called Crow Foot Bottoms because it was a predominately Black neighborhood.[1]

When the 26-year old Rev. Hester arrived at Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) in 1921, it was after WWI and during the early days of the Harlem Renaissance. The nation was experiencing an economic boom and that created a new sense of ownership and self-determination for African Americans to participate in Americanisms as full citizens; Hester was no exception. He, like so many others, migrated from the south to the north to begin life anew. His appointment at Shiloh also opened other doors for him in his new home such as becoming a teacher, a coach as well as president of Fredericksburg Normal & Industrial Institute (F. N. & I. I.) from 1921-1935. His good fortunes were a remarkable improvement for someone whose father had lived his life as the “property” of another human being. Rev. Hester took every advantage of his college education to improve his condition for himself and his family. He went about the business of preaching on Sunday and teaching on Monday–but no matter how smart, law-abiding or respectful he was to others, he was still a man who lived in a society that would never let him forget the sins of his Blackness.

Hester never allowed the outward hatred of his detractors to prevent him from holding up mirrors to society. His quieted wisdom forced anyone with a conscience to look into those mirrors and self-reflect on the immoral claims of racial superiority. Neutral on Nothing is how his granddaughter, U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater (ret.), summarized the spirit and character of her trailblazing grandfather in her 2019 publication on his life as she remembers it. Rev. Hester’s uncompromising insistence on the rights of African Americans in Fredericksburg challenged the entire community to resist the false choice of neutrality, for every inhumane condition visited up African Americans was intentional, not neutral, and he, by example, rejected normalizing inequality.

One example of passive resistance Bridgewater described in her book is when Rev. Hester encouraged the community to pay the capitation taxes imposed upon African American voters. Capitation tax is the legal term for poll taxes. Though the 15th Amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote, that right was circumvented by the Virginia Assembly in 1901. The 100 men who sat for the meeting at the State Constitutional Convention “had as its main objective the purification of Virginia elections.” [2] They viewed the thought of allowing hundreds of thousands of African American men the right to vote as inherently evil because African American men were “without education or political training to vote.”[3] They wanted to discourage or otherwise prevent African American men from voting[4] and the way to do that was to penalize the right to vote via a poll tax. The tax did not technically violate the 15th Amendment, but it did raise the stakes for radicalized Black folks. The agreed-upon tax was $1.50 ($49.70 in 2022), so Rev. Hester went to work on “qualifying” African American voters by holding night classes at Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) to ensure as many people possessed the literacy skills to vote in all local, state and national elections.[5] “Give us the ballot!”[6] was the constant refrain all across the nation. Those who participated in exercising their right to vote continued to pay the poll tax every year until 1962, when the United States Congress passed the 24th Amendment outlawing poll taxes.

Rev. Hester did not shy away from confronting unethical and immoral behavior. He worked on removing excuses of disenfranchisement using various forms of passive resistance. For example, in a letter to the editor of the Free Lance-Star dated March 8, 1945, Hester questioned the city’s February 1945 motivation for reducing the amount of gas taxicab operators could purchase to only five gallons, every three months. The problem with the city’s directive was that it only targeted the 22 African Americans who had their licenses approved the month before. The new rule had the intended consequences of putting them out of business. But not so fast. Rev. Hester pressed hard—inquiring of city officials, as well as the Office of Defense Transportation (OTD) in Richmond, on the justification for the rule changes. When he arrived at his conclusion, he penned a stinging letter of rebuke that appeared on the editorial page of Free Lance-Star.

Because injustices emerged at any given time, Rev. Hester was on-call 24 hours a day, 7-days a week. He held meetings at church, school, and even in his home. Bridgewater recalled the stories her grandmother shared about hosting high-profile activists such as Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Asa Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell, among many others, at 515 Amelia Street.

The toxic build-up of constantly fighting systems of racial inequities was stressful, but every once in a while, Rev. Hester would take time for himself to relax and recharge. On July 8, 1955, he and a few of his Minister friends traveled First Class aboard the S.S. America ocean liner bound for Southampton, England, where he lodged at the historic May Fair Hotel for four weeks. The irony is not lost here: Rev. Hester had to leave the country to be treated like the first-class person he was.

He persisted in breaking down the obstacles that prevented him and his community from experiencing the fullness of their humanity. His life’s work will be posthumously honored by Dominion Power and the Library System of Virginia as one of its Strong Men and Women Leaders for 2022.

After striving to live his life in peace, Rev. Hester now rests in power, still.


[1] Pamela E. Bridgewater, Neutral on Nothing, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 2019, p. 7.
[2] Conley L. Edwards, “A political history of the poll tax in Virginia, 1900-1950”, 1973, p.3.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Women did not get the right to vote until 1920 via the 19th Amendment.
[5] Bridgewater, Neutral on Nothing, p. 34.
[6] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Give Us the Ballot”. Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (May 17, 1957). Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

About the Author: Paula D. Royster, PhD

Dr. Royster is the Founder of The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). She is a published author, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar grantee. Dr. Royster teaches undergraduate coursework in Humanities and Social Sciences. She earned her interdisciplinary doctorate degree in Humanities and Culture with a secondary major in Public Policy and Social Justice; and an advanced graduate certificate in Creative Writing. Her research interest is the African Diaspora.