On August 17, members of the faith community, historians, lifelong Roanoke Valley residents and educators gathered at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Franklin Road to inspire solidarity and have an open dialogue about America’s original sin.
Sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia (DIOSWVA), the event had three objectives: honor the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans, have a productive discussion about the local lynchings of William Lavender and Thomas Smith in the late 1800s and deliberate about how we can heal as a community.
Remarks were provided by seven primary speakers: the Rev. Lyle Morton, United Methodist Church Pastor; Rev. Melissa Hays-Smith, Canon for Justice and Reconciliation Ministries; Rev. Joe Cobb, Roanoke City Vice Mayor; Rev. Amy Ziglar, Mt. Zion AME Church; Ray Phanelson, Christ Episcopal Church member; Rev. Kevin Kinsey, Central Church of the Brethren Pastor; and the Rev. Dick Willis, Deacon in DIOSWVA.
“My great-grandmother was the first generation out of slavery. She was a landowner. She was a mid-wife. She was somebody,” Rev. Ziglar told attendees. “Our history of race relations has been very ugly. We can speak out of our mouths, words of love and kindness. We cannot change the past, but we can certainly change the future. We don’t have to live and go where we have already been, but we can stand together and show love to each other.”
Months of preparation went into last Saturday’s event. It was the Rev. Hays-Smith who brought the idea of the pilgrimage to the Dumas Legacy Steering Committee earlier this year. From there, leaders met and shared ideas before collectively coming up with an itinerary.
“Many have talked about not knowing this part of our American history. Many were empowered by the number of people who also want racial justice in our country and are willing to come out in favor of it. The truth must be told before we as a community can move forward toward reconciliation,” said Rev. Hays-Smith.
During a 50-year period – 1810 through 1860 – approximately one million shackled African American slaves were forced to march through Southwest Virginia to the deep south’s cotton fields, according to DIOSWVA.
“As the late James Cone suggested, ‘there is no difference between the cross and the lynching tree.’ Both were meant not nearly to kill, but were designed to humiliate, to dehumanize, to shame and to discourage others from challenging the status quo,” said Rev. David Jones. “We gather here because we believe there is redemption in remembrance. We believe there is an inextricable link between suffering and love. Today, let’s be illuminated, motivated and even infuriated if necessary, so that none can say they were ignorant of the evil that still percolates just beneath the service of our well-practiced civility.”
The Rev. Morton has been a pastor in the United Methodist Church for the last 27 years. Having grown up in Prince Edward County in the 60s, he understands the concept of racial injustice all too well. It is only through learning people, he said, that we can get to know one another that will hopefully lead to a foundation of trust.
Added the reverend, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”