As Black History Month wrapped up, I had the opportunity in the final week of February to travel to one of the most significant locations associated with the Civil Rights movement: Montgomery, Ala. This week’s post highlights some of what I was able to see and its relevancy to our own history here in Roanoke.
Places of Separation and Racism
By intention, my visit started at two of the sites where actions in opposition of civil rights and promotion of racist actions occurred. I started with a visit to the Capitol, an impressive 150-year-old Greek Revival structure, Alabama’s fourth building constructed to house state government. In this building, state legislators voted to join the Confederacy in the Civil War, adopted a new State Constitution declaring its independence from the United States, and legislated the preservation of slavery. In this building, the Confederate States Constitution was drafted and ratified. And, in 1965, it was on the steps leading into this building that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and 25,000 gathered to protest racial discrimination and were denied entry.
The second building, today located directly across from the State Capitol, moved several blocks from its original location, was the first Confederate “White House,” serving as the executive residence of Jefferson Davis and his family until the Capitol of the Confederacy was established in Richmond. The house is full of period furniture and furnishings, and offer details of the lavish parties conducted by the Davis’ but lacks any mention of slavery or its role in the South and the Civil War.
Places of Struggle and Hope
From these two, I proceeded to visit Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King served as pastor during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, then on to a statue of Rosa Parks near the location where she boarded a bus in 1955, subsequently refusing to give up her seat to a white patron. I noted this location was located adjacent to a fountain, which was historically the site of one of the most prominent slave markets in the city. Additionally, I was able to stop by the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum, and the Legacy Museum, each detailing in their own way the history of slavery and racism, and the struggle for equity and the legacies that remain in our communities to this day.
Our Local Experience
Though present throughout Virginia and in our region, the City of Roanoke, due to its post-Civil War formation, is fortunate to have avoided the presence and conduct of slavery, though certainly not its legacy or the presence of racism. We may not have former slave markets, but we certainly have the damaging results of urban renewal. We may not have been around as a city when the Confederate Constitution was ratified, but our City Councils did, in the past, pass ordinances prohibiting occupation of certain streets by persons of color, and forbid whites and blacks from sitting together on trolleys and buses operating in the City. Montgomery may have Rosa Parks, but 1940’s Roanoke saw a small number of men and women refuse to give up their seats on buses and trolleys, and were arrested for it years before Rosa Parks.
Not to Be Forgotten
Most moving of all, I was able to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the only memorial in the United States dedicated to race-based terrorism and lynching. Superbly designed, the Memorial immediately evokes the horror and tragedy that lynching—in the period between Reconstruction and midway through the 20th Century, at least 4,400 African Americans were lynched. This memorial is a critical reminder of the depth of race-based hate that existed in the Nation and its continued legacy and impact. Sadly, Roanoke shares in this legacy. Within the memorial there exists a monument to the two known victims of lynching here in Roanoke—William Lavender and Thomas Smith in 1892 and 1893, respectively.
I left Montgomery moved by what I had seen. Certainly troubled by the depth of race-based hatred that has existed for so long, but also encouraged by the knowledge that we are, as a Nation and in Roanoke as a City, willing to name these horrors, bring them out into the light of day and, as uncomfortable as it may be, try to determine how to atone for and chart a new way forward. I am hopeful that we will find such a way. I end this month commemorating Black History both grieving for all the wrongs carried out upon people of color, but also celebrating all the contributions—economic, cultural, artistic, and moral leadership—made by these very same individuals!
-- Bob Cowell