Sam’s father was forcibly brought to America from his African home on a slave ship. Sam, who was born into slavery in approximately 1833, grew up on a Virginia plantation. In May of 1865, following the Civil War, he came to Maine with two of his daughters thanks to the help of Col. Stephen Fletcher, Class of 1859. Colby President James Champlin helped Sam secure a job with the Maine Central Railroad.
In November of 1865, Baptist friends contributed the funds necessary for Sam to return to Virginia so he could bring his wife, Maria Iverson, who had been a childhood playmate of his and former slave whom he married while in Virginia, as well as their third daughter to Maine. Sam also managed to bring to Maine his father, who had been a slave for seventy-two years.
Colby hired Sam’s father as its first janitor, but in 1867 he passed away. Sam resigned his post with the railroad and came to work at Colby. For the next 37 years, Janitor Sam served as an inspiration to countless Colby students who immortalized him in articles, poems and stories. In fact, in the final quarter of the 19th century, Sam’s name was mentioned more often than any other in the Echo.
Aside from handling all janitorial duties at Colby, which included everything from keeping fires burning in all fireplaces to delivering the mail, Sam earned his popularity through his own generosity and selflessness. Along with Maria, Sam hosted Colby students for Thanksgiving dinners, interceded on their behalf with faculty and administrators, and tirelessly endured their pranks and assaults on his intelligence.
Sam not only withstood the belittlement of Colby students, he also managed to raise a family with his wife Maria on a very modest salary. As late as 1896, Sam’s annual income only totalled $480, despite nearly thirty years of service. This fact is made more startling in conjunction with the dramatic increase in Sam’s duties over those years. In 1867, when Sam began as janitor, Colby was only comprised of three buildings, four faculty, and sixty students. By 1903, Sam’s last year at Colby, he was responsible for seven buildings and, though it was widely recognized that seven buildings with the newly introduced and problematic central heating were more than one person could handle, Colby wouldn’t hire more than one full time janitor until several decades later.
Sam and Maria had seven children, six girls and one son. Their only son Edward Samuel attended Colby with the class of 1897, but instead dropped out after a year to work at Maine Central Railroad where his father worked before becoming a janitor. It was not until 1900, did Sam truly have a child from Colby when his daughter Marion Osborne became the first African-American woman to graduate from Colby.
Miraculously, Sam also found the time to be active in the local community. He was a staunch Baptist, and he became a member of the Waterville Baptist Church. Sam also became an enthusiastic member of the Waterville Lodge of Good Templars, the national society of men who crusaded for temperance and total abstinence in regard to intoxicating liquor in the late 19th century. In 1902, Sam was flag-bearer for the American delegation at the international convention of Good Templars in Stockholm, Sweden.
Sam retired from Colby in 1903 and died the following year, on July 1, 1904. That day was described as an incredibly sorrowful day for Colby. The love for the janitor was fondly illustrated as “President and Mrs. White went to his bedside early in the morning and the president remained until the last.” Colby demonstrated the respect the institution had for Sam as it honored him by having the college bell ring seventy one times, representing the age of the amiable janitor. His funeral took place in the Colby chapel and was noted in newspapers throughout New England; the President and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees both served as pall-bearers. Sam is buried, along with Maria and many of his children, in the family plot in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Waterville.
Sam will likely be best remembered for his interactions with Colby students. He showed resilience if not defiance in the face of students’ naive racism. And whatever pranks they tried to play on him, he ultimately had the last word.
One day in spring a freshman saw Sam burning over the campus grass. “Sam,” said the freshman, “that fire makes the ground almost as black as you are.” Sam quickly replied, “Yes sah, an’ in a few weeks the sun an’ rain will make it as green as you are.”
One day a student asked Sam what he expected to do when he got to heaven. His reply was honest and genuine: “Ah’ll just go on takin’ care o’ my Colby boys.” “But suppose you don’t get to heaven, Sam?” “Den I’ll just take care ob a lot more o’ my Colby boys.”1
1Anecdotes paraphrased from: Marriner, Ernest Cummings (1963). The History of Colby College. Waterville, ME: Colby College Press.