Queen Elizabeth Miller's 'courage to do and to dare' created home for Staunton children

A construction accident in 1915 on a New York City Street that killed the mother of an eight-year-old girl propelled a Black Virginia woman into a 38-year crusade to provide care for Staunton and Augusta County’s most indigent children, regardless of race.

“Something stirred in me, woke me up to the love of children,” Queen Elizabeth Miller told Staunton writer Audrey Blackford Higgs in 1955 of that accident. “There must be some way to care for children like this … a home maybe!”

Queen Elizabeth Taylor was born to a formerly enslaved couple, Louis Taylor and Anne Pocahontas Bolling Garrett, on Feb. 18, 1874, in Buckingham County. At an early age, she accompanied two older sisters to East Orange, New Jersey, then later to New York City, doing menial jobs while trying to figure out what to do with her life. Then she witnessed the accident.

At a subsequent religion conference, Queen met Rev. Gregory Will Hayes from the Lynchburg, Virginia Seminary. At the behest of Professor Hayes, she enrolled in the Seminary but faced stiff resistance for seven years as a Black woman. But she finally received her Ministry degree while graduating at the top of her class.

After graduation, she became an itinerant preacher around the state. One assignment came from Oak Grove Baptist Church in Staunton, where she met William Miller, a deacon. For almost a year, Miller transported her to church meetings in his horse and buggy, discussing her plans to open a home for unwanted and destitute children.

Queen was impressed with Miller’s enthusiasm for the home. She then decided that since he owned a parcel of land and his own transportation, he may make a good husband. “He was a good man with a job and a horse and buggy,” she recollected. “I married him.”

The courtship was not always smooth. William reported years later that Queen initially did not want to bring him into what she knew would be a difficult job. “She had a great mission ahead of her, a mission to rescue children. I thought I could help.”

“No,” Queen allegedly told him, “It will be a hard life. You wouldn’t like it.”

Undeterred, William responded, “Maybe the Lord has called me to do this work too.”

After their marriage, Queen took a job teaching in a nearby one-room schoolhouse until she and William formally opened the Hayes Memorial Industrial School and Orphans Home at Franklin Hill, in what is today the 2600 block of West Beverley Street near the Food Lion. It soon afterward became known as the Queen Miller Orphanage.

The exact opening date is disputed. Many records indicate the orphanage opened in 1925; however, a 1940 News Leader article stated that in 1917 a Board of Trustees purchased a plot of four acres to build the home. Apparently, the home was up and running the following year, as a June 1, 1918 Richmond Planet article shows that Queen asked the Women’s Baptist State Convention to “take over, at the death of Mr. and Mrs. Miller, the Hayes Memorial Orphanage at Staunton, Va.”

This request may have been prompted by a tragic accident when William, in his role of manager, accidentally amputated his left hand in a farm accident.

An April 18, 1919 Staunton Daily Leader article documented how arduous fundraising for the orphanage quickly became. For example, Queen left Franklin Hill in mid-April on a three-week swing first to Norfolk, where she spoke to the Women’s Auxiliary of the Norfolk Presbytery. From Norfolk, she journeyed to Danville to address the Roanoke Presbytery, then to Farmville, followed by Petersburg, where she spoke to the Colored Baptist Association. Two weeks after returning home, she traveled to Franklin, West Virginia to make several addresses.

During these fundraising and speaking tours, William held down the fort, cooking, cleaning, and educating the children in his care. The approximately 300 Black and white children who passed through the facility received at minimum a third-grade education before they moved to the public schools.

Tragedy again struck on Nov. 8, 1927. As Queen escorted two-dozen older children out of a church service in town, they noticed an orange glow on the western horizon. Recognizing the glow as a fire, they had no clue it was their own home being consumed in flames.

Twelve younger boys were inside the original building when the blaze of unknown origins broke out, but William miraculously got them all out safely. The structure was destroyed, and while the girls and some of the younger boys were housed in an adjacent building, neighbors took in the older boys.

At the time of the fire, a new building stood nearby, uncompleted due to a lack of funds. Luckily it was not damaged, and renewed efforts by city leaders, churches, and neighbors to raise funds to complete it began in earnest. After only a few months, the needed $2,500 was raised, and the stucco and frame building was completed. In 1928 the entire property was valued at $35,000.

The 1930s depression made life even more difficult for the Millers and the orphanage, but they managed to squeak by with Queen’s constant fundraising. A significant source of funding occurred every holiday season when she took a chorus of children around to churches for musical programs, then passed a hat afterward. Rev. C.H. Harris coordinated a committee called the Miller Home Convention, and every Thanksgiving, this committee provided pantry supplies, clothing, and financial assistance, which got the orphanage through the winter. A local physician, Dr. Stuart Scott, provided medical care to the children free of charge throughout most of the decade. By 1940, only three deaths due to illness were recorded.

Throughout the 1940s, under an integrated Board of Trustees, a second story was added to the boys’ dormitory, a coal house and garage were constructed, and everything received a new coat of paint.

Tragedy struck the orphanage a final time on Feb. 6, 1955. An oil stove exploded in an upstairs bedroom, sparking a conflagration that destroyed the entire structure and killed two young children, Nancy Lee Cauls, age 5, and her brother, Edward, age 7, who were asleep in the room. Sadly, their mother, Sally Cauls, had been a charge of the Millers years earlier and was again living with her children in the orphanage while going through a divorce. Though she was unable to reach her children, she got out safely.

Another resident in the house, Robert Miller, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that “We heard an explosion in the room … By the time I reached the door to the room I was met with a wall of flame and it was impossible to enter.”

Firefighters were hampered by freezing temperatures, shifting winds, and an insufficient water supply. Finally, a hydrant 500 yards away was tapped, but it was too late to save the building or the Cauls children. During the fire, 80-year-old Queen and 81-year-old William had to be treated at a neighbor’s home for shock.

By this time, Queen and William had stopped taking in new residents due to age and health considerations. The fire was the last straw, however, and since the Millers lost everything, plans were immediately put into place to use insurance money and donations to build a small, furnished single-family home on the property so the two could finally retire quietly and comfortably.

The News Leader stepped in and coordinated a fundraising campaign to raise $10,000 to build and furnish the new home for the Millers, their daughter and son-in-law, who would be their caregivers.

On June 15 – only ten weeks after the fire – construction was completed on a six-room, single-story dwelling at 2624 West Beverley Street. This timeline included razing the destroyed orphanage and seeding and landscaping the yard.

The Miller’s lives in their new environment, however, did not last long. Less than a year after moving in, Queen had to go to UVA Hospital for a leg amputation, most likely due to diabetes. On May 16, with doctors saying she was not responding to treatment, she was sent home to convalesce in the comfort of her own home. The next day at 8:30 a.m., at age 82, she unexpectedly passed away.

Ten months later, on March 29, 1957, Queen’s husband William passed away. At his funeral, Rev. Garber, a loyal friend for over 35 years, spoke of how difficult it was for a man to take a secondary role in his own home. “Mr. Miller deliberately chose to fall in back of Queen and allow her the leadership in his wife’s work,” he proclaimed. “This secondary role he chose, fully accepted, and carried through with humility and often with pain.”

“There was nothing he didn’t do to keep the big family going while Queen was away hunting money,” Garber continued. “One hardly noticed this man who was hidden by the dynamic character of his wife, but this marriage was a good balance – better than you’d think.”

Many of the children raised by Queen and William Miller went on to have exemplary lives and careers. Almost all of the children attended high school. One became a registered nurse. Two became beauticians, and another was a full-time student at Virginia Union University.

In 1980, the Staunton Women’s Club and Audrey Higgs, who authored a small-press book titled “The Queen: Elizabeth Miller,” sponsored an initiative to name an apartment complex on Buttermilk Spring Road “Elizabeth Miller Gardens” in honor of Queen Elizabeth Miller.

“We look back over the 30 years of hard labor and thank God that our voice for our people has been heard,” Queen said in 1940. “We thank God for [those who] sponsored our work. It gives us courage to do and to dare.”

Dale Brumfield can be reached at dalebrumfield@protonmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Queen Miller Orphanage was home to hundreds in 20th century Staunton