University of Maryland Eastern Shore The 125th Anniversary
125th Anniversary
"Celebrating the Journey: The 125th Anniversary of UMES" 1886-2011




Thomas H. Kiah

No educator left a more indelible mark on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in its first half-century than Thomas Henry Kiah.

Thomas H. Kiah, Ph.D.* - He is the lone Eastern Shore and Maryland native to head the institution.

* - He is the first alumnus to be its chief executive.

* - He held that post for 26 years, the longest tenure in the school's first 125 years.

* - His name adorned two campus buildings.

Kiah was born April 14, 1873 on a Dorchester County farm not far from Bucktown, the birthplace of noted Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. 

Kiah and his identical (and younger) twin brother, James Albert, attended local elementary schools. But desiring to further his education, Thomas enrolled in Princess Anne Academy to complete his secondary education. After graduation in 1900, Kiah entered Morgan College in Baltimore, where his faith grew and his calling for the ministry deepened.      

When he graduated from Morgan in the spring of 1906, Kiah joined the Methodist Episcopal Church's Delaware Conference. It would be an association he continued for the remainder of his adult life. The conference assigned him to the pastorship of Union Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Michaels, Md. 

With degree in hand and a new job, Kiah married Princess Anne Academy classmate, Mary Roberta Townsend, in Baltimore in a June 27, 1906 ceremony performed by the Rev. Noah T. Moore. In light of his qualifications and deportment, Kiah soon found himself accepting an appointment as principal of his alma mater, where he succeeded Frank Trigg in 1910.

The Thomas Kiah family, circa 1917Kiah and his wife were devoted to Princess Anne Academy and both worked to advance the institution. During their 13-year marriage, the Kiahs had six children: C. Lycurgus, Thomas Waldo, Hamilton Gregory, A. Brewington, Rodelia L. and Randolph McQuay. 

Kiah was determined to help blacks pursue education and equality. A lifelong learner, he received his master of arts degree in 1916 from Wiley University, Marshall, Texas.

Two years after the October 1918 death of his wife, Mary Roberta, Kiah earned his doctorate of pedagogy from Morgan. He also did graduate studies at Cornell and Columbia universities.  

In June 1921, Kiah married Cynthia O. Powdrill of Oklahoma, who was a nurse at Dixie Hospital in Hampton, Va. They had five children: Cynthia O., Thomas Henry, Jr., Humphrey Powdrill, Gwendolyn C. and Grace Winona.

Kiah, the Academy's fifth leader, distinguished himself in the ministry, in his profession and in the community.  A 33rd degree Mason, Kiah was elected Deputy Grand Master of the Free and Accepted Masons for the Maryland Jurisdiction on Aug. 15, 1927. 

At a March 20, 1932 Masonic program held in his honor at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Princess Anne, a peer described Kiah as a quiet and unassuming individual who wins the confidence and respect of all with whom he comes in contact.

During his tenure as principal, America would fight the Great War abroad, affirm a woman's right to vote, endure the Great Depression, promote a New Deal and continue the battle of equality for all of its citizens.

Kiah was unafraid to step forward to use his diplomatic skills to ease racial tensions, which he did in the aftermath of the 1933 lynching of George Armwood in Princess Anne, one of the last acts of vigilantism of its kind in Maryland.

Throughout Kiah's 26 years as principal, the Academy's enrollment fluctuated and its curriculum expanded to prepare students for the new realities of America's growing society.

He dreamed of the Academy becoming a four-year college but would not live to see that become reality. 

Shortly after the Academy closed for the 1936 Christmas holiday, Kiah, a diabetic, suffered burns in an accident in his home, which resulted in infection. He died Dec. 30, and is interred alongside his first wife, Mary, in the campus cemetery.

Two years after his death, black Masons in Chestertown, Md. named their lodge after him in recognition of his life's work as an educator who championed the cause of teaching blacks.

A gymnasium-auditorium, constructed with federal Works Progress Administration money and completed in 1940, was named in Kiah's honor. The building eventually outlived its usefulness and was torn down to make way for Hazel Hall. His memory remains preserved in brick and mortar not far away, where Kiah Hall houses the university's business, math and computer science programs.

-- KIMBERLY CONWAY DUMPSON


Photo caption: (L-R) Thomas Waldo, Hamilton Gregory, Randolph McQuay held by Mary Roberta Kiah, Rodelia and Thomas Henry Kiah. (circa 1917 - courtesy of the Kiah family)

"Celebrating the Journey: The 125th Anniversary of the
University of Maryland Eastern Shore" 1886-2011