If the student of American history would know what freedom has meant to the Negro race, let him study the life of a man like Byrd Prillerman, B.S., A.M., Litt.D., President Emeritus West Virginia Collegiate Institute and Superintendent of work among the Negroes of West Virginia S. S. Association. Having been born a slave on October 19, 1859 his life covers the whole period of the freedom of his race in America.
His rise from poverty and obscurity to a place of leadership and large usefulness as a citizen, not only makes a fascinating story, but it is in a way, typical of the progress of the race since Emancipation. Mr. Prillerman is a native of the Old Dominion, having been born in Franklin County, Va., the youngest of a family of seventeen children. His father, Franklin Prillerman, was a man of intelligence, energy, and initiative. He was a blacksmith and even before the Civil War had been sent into the Kanawha Valley to work at his trade.
This revealed two other traits, loyalty and imagination. The test of his loyalty came in the case with which he might have escaped to Ohio, but steadily resisted the temptation and returned to his family and his master. He became imbued with the idea that he would some day become free, and made at his own forge a knife with which to skin deer when he should return a free man to the Kanawha Valley, where game was still abundant. All these qualities of the father the son inherited, though they were to be employed in a different atmosphere and along different lines. The mother of our subject was Charlotte Prillerman. She was the daughter of Jacob Prillerman, her owner, or master. Both the paternal and maternal grandfathers were white.
Immediately after the surrender of Gen. Lee, in the spring of 1865, the Prillermans rented a farm in Virginia on which they lived for two years. In the spring of 1868, they came into West Virginia afoot, some of the older sons having preceded them. They rented a place near Sissonville, where they resided for several years. Byrd Prillerman was a boy of nine when they moved to West Virginia. He was twelve years of age before he went to school. In 1872 he entered school in Charleston under Henry Clay Payne, a Hampton graduate. He availed himself of every opportunity to learn and on November 10, 1879 began teaching at Sissonville, where at an earlier age he had gone to school. For full forty years, he was in the school room and in that time has come to be recognized as one of the leading educators of his State.
For his college course he went to Knoxville College, where he won his B.S. degree in May, 1889. While a student, his summer vacations were spent in teaching. He was the second Negro college graduate from the Kanawha Valley. After his graduation, he returned to West Virginia and taught in the Charleston public school till 1892. At that time Storer College at Harpers Ferry was the only school for the higher education of Negroes in the State, and it is not a State institution. The great need of the race was an institution for the training of teachers, and leaders. Mr. Prillerman saw this need and with characteristic directness made his plans. During the Christmas holidays of 1890, he called on Governor Fleming, and State Superintendent, B. S. Morgan, and laid the matter before them. The Governor and State Superintendent Morgan directed him how to proceed. He then associated himself with Rev. C. H. Payne, D.D., and together they secured proper legislative action creating the West Virginia Colored Institute. This was in 1891, and the following year the institution opened its doors to students and Prof. Prillerman was put at the head of the department of English.
He taught in that capacity from 1892 to 1909, under the administration of three Principals. On the death of President J. McHenry Jones, September 22, 1909, Prof. Prillerman was elected acting president September 23, and later confirmed as president. The man and the opportunity were fairly met. He was in the prime of maturity and the institution was still in the formative period. Under his presidency the curriculum was thoroughly revised, and, in 1915, the school raised to college rank, and the name changed to West Virginia Collegiate Institute by an act of the legislature. It was the first State school for Negroes to reach the rank of an accredited college whose work is accepted by the universities of the North. The first college class was graduated in 1919. Under his administration the enrollment crossed the four hundred mark. The plant and grounds were enlarged and improved. A dining hall, a dormitory for girls, cement walks about the grounds, a central heating plant, the Library and the Lakin Athletic Field were all added while he was at the head of the institution. During the war the Institute was recognized as a College for the training of soldiers by the U. S. Government.
The religious motive has always been prominent in Prof. Prillerman’s work. He is a member of the Baptist church and, though not a minister, is a religious leader. He has been Vice-President of the West Virginia State Convention and was for five years Moderator of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Sunday School Convention, which under his leadership put on a progressive program, which brought new life and enthusiasm to the work and developed efficient S. S. leaders. So it is not strange that he found a way to create a religious atmosphere at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. This was done through the Sunday School, the Y. M. C. A. and the course in S. S. teacher training.
In 1919, he was offered the position of Superintendent of work among the Negroes under the auspices of the West Virginia Sunday School Association. He retired from the presidency of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute as President Emeritus and has since devoted himself to the Sunday School work. He is a member of the State Executive Committee, and was a member of the International Executive Committee for the quadrennium 1918-22. His present work takes him to every part of the State, and it is safe to say there is no other man in the State better informed on Sunday School work. He does a great deal of institute work for which he is admirably fitted by both training and experience. Other positions of honor and trust have come to him during the years. He has been a Notary Public since 1897, is a trustee of the National Training School for Women and Girls at Washington, member of the West Virginia Anti- Tuberculosis Association, and a life member of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. He was one of the organizers and for many years president of West Virginia Teachers’ Association. He became a member of the National Education Association in Toronto, Canada in 1891, and has retained his active membership ever since. In recognition of his work and attainments Westminister College of Pennsylvania conferred on him the A.M. degree and the Selma University the degree of Doctor of Literature.
On July 24, 1893, Prof. Prillerman was married to Miss Mattie Eugenia Brown, of West Virginia. She was educated at Wayland Seminary, Washington, D. C., and was an accomplished woman entering heartily and sympathetically into the work of her husband. She passed to her reward July 9, 1921.
Of the six children born to them four are living. They are Delbert M. Prillerman, B.S. of Michigan Agricultural College and Professor of Chemistry, W. Va. Collegiate Institute; Henry Lawrence Prillerman, a student at Collegiate Institute and a teacher; Miss Ednora Mae Prillerman, Senior at Ohio State University; and Miss Myrtle Elizabeth Prillerman, student at Collegiate Institute (1922).
Mr. Prillerman believes that the most patriotic thing a man can do is willingly to pay taxes, he owns valuable lands at Sissonville and Institute. He lives in his own home and says that “A well painted two-story house owned by a Negro is sharper than a two-edged sword.” He believes that the White American should be willing for the Negro to have the opportunity for highest and best physical, mental, social, and spiritual development.
Dr. Prillerman has done his work in such a way as to make friends for himself and for his work among the leaders of both races. In 1912 that other race leader, Dr. Booker T. Washington, who was also a personal friend, when on a visit to the Institute said: “I am glad not only to come here to receive your hearty words of welcome; but, I am, in a peculiar sense, glad to come again to this institution. I want to repeat to the Superintendent of Education, that I am gratified beyond measure to note the evidence of growth and order and system that have taken place at this institution as I see them here. I am glad that the Board of Regents in their wisdom, saw fit to place at the head of the institution the man they have placed there. I have known your Principal for a number of years. I have always admired and loved him. I admire and love him first, because of his modest bearing. He is one of the few men who have learned that the sign of true worth, the sign of true greatness, is in modesty and simplicity; and I want to congratulate you that you have such a principal for this institution.”