Several speakers from faith communities, academia and local government have called for togetherness and for hope that past sins aren’t repeated, referring to a checkered piece of Roanoke’s history.
“Our history of race relations has been very ugly in the sight of God, as evidenced by the fact that we’re standing near the site of a lynching,” Rev. Amy Christine Hodge Ziglar, of Roanoke’s Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, told a crowd of more than 100.
Ziglar then described the “death and demise” of humans at the hands of other humans as “a horror and embarrassment to humankind.”
Ziglar was one of six main speakers during the Roanoke portion of the “Pilgrimage for Racial Justice: Marking 400 Years of Inequality.” The speeches last Saturday were delivered in a courtyard near St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in the city’s Old Southwest neighborhood.
The event—co-sponsored by the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia—was part of a statewide remembrance of forced migration of Virginia slaves during the 1800s.
From 1810 to 1860, a million shackled African American slaves were forced to march from Alexandria and Richmond and then through the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia en route to the Deep South’s cotton fields, according to information provided by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.
The journey involved family separations, hunger, thirst and many deaths from disease.
Additionally, the event addressed the late 1800s lynchings of William Lavender and Thomas Smith, African American men who were killed about one year apart by white mobs in Roanoke.
Two speakers—Ferrum College sociology professor Susan Mead and pastor Kevin Kinsey of the Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke—recounted events leading up to the deaths of Lavender and Smith.
The speakers addressed the crowd about one block away from where some said the lynchings occurred. After the event, organizers invited those in attendance to walk to the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue, the former site of a lynching tree of legend.
Historians have questioned the location, but the events were real.
Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, also a minister, recalled himself “reeling” upon learning about the history of the lynchings.
“Their blood runs deep in our city, yet their souls are eternal,” Cobb said in his message.
Cobb referred to some of that painful past as he called on the city to turn itself into a place of nourishment and hope.
Lavender, 20 when he died, was lynched by a mob on Feb. 12, 1892, after being accused of attempting to assault a white girl named Alice Perry, according to newspaper accounts that were cited on Saturday.
Lavender was arrested and brought to the police station house in Roanoke on the afternoon of Feb. 11. It was reported at the time that he confessed to the assault after being taken to the house of a n officer.
A mob of about 150 people who had searched the city found Lavender. The mob overpowered three guards and seized Lavender before later hanging him from a tree. A grand jury was called to investigate the lynching, but no indictments were ever made.
Smith was given even more punishment as he was also riddled with bullets and burned.
Smith was arrested in 1893 for allegedly luring a white woman into a room, then assaulting and robbing her. His death, like Lavender’s, also came at the hands of a mob, but that lynching resulted in the trial of five people.
“It happened many times, in many places,” Rev. Lyle Morton, pastor of St. Paul’s and West End United Methodist churches in Roanoke, said.
Morton, however, said the men lynched were often innocent.
Morton’s comments on lynchings served as a segue to a reading of singer Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” by B. Ray Phanelson, a member of Christ Episcopal Church.
The title of Holiday’s song is a metaphoric reference to lynchings, which the composition spoke out against.
While she condemned darker events in human history, Ziglar called for history not to repeat itself.
Ziglar said faith would allow humankind to humble itself and turn away from its “wicked ways.” She further described humanity as God’s “ear” and “mouth,” which she said can speak messages of love.
“All we have to do is to understand that we are the instruments of God to keep history from repeating itself,” she said. “Our land is running rampant with hatred, but it doesn’t have to be so with us … We can’t change history, but we sure can change the future.”