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Roanoke College dedicates plaques honoring enslaved laborers

Published: Apr. 8, 2021 at 6:05 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Thursday, Roanoke College acknowledged how labor from enslaved men helped to make the institution what it is today. Campus leaders read the names of those men aloud in a small ceremony that was also live-streamed online.

Roanoke College’s Administration Building was the focal point for the ceremony, precisely because the work that started on the building in 1848 was done by the hands of enslaved men.

The ceremony was live streamed to afford a smaller crowd size, according to the college. It began with a prayer by Reverend Chris Bowen.

“So O’ God who is grace, help us to daily repent of the sin of racism and may that repentance be a communal walk towards a different and more inclusive future,” Bowen prayed, “where Maroons are judged solely by the content of their character, not the color of their skin and where there is room at the table for everyone.”

President Michael Maxey then explained some of the history of the building behind him. He said brick work was done by two enslaved men purchased by contractors in Richmond. They were brothers named Charles and Peyton Lewis.

Maxey also noted the work of a man named Baldwin Simms, who he said likely worked on both the Administration Building while enslaved and later helped construct Bittle Hall as a free man in the 1870s.

“Here at Roanoke we emphasize the education of students as whole persons,” Maxey said. “The Lewis’ and Mr. Simms were whole persons as well. And we celebrate the opportunity to call their names and recognize their lives.”

He then called upon several students to unveil two plaques on the front of the building, recognizing the men, their labor and their unacknowledged contributions to the campus.

“On this day, we share stories of the hands and hearts and minds that have been forgotten in our history,” Maxey said. “Hands and hearts and minds that shaped and formed this iconic building with no credit, no acknowledgement, no appreciation, no freedom, no compensation. It is those stories we attempt to partially tell today with our actions. While we cannot make up for the lost time, we can call attention to our gratitude and recognition for the enslaved workers role in founding Roanoke College.”

Maxey noted this was the first step in a symbolic beginning of understanding the college’s history, a message echoed by student campus leaders.

“For two years now the Black Student Alliance has honored the memory of slaves on the last Sunday of Black History Month through a candlelight vigil,” said Jordan Robinson, of the Black Student Alliance. “And like these two plaques, these are mere steps in order to rectify and acknowledge that without the work of these enslaved individuals, our college could not afford buildings of this caliber, that have continued to stand through over 170 years of wear and tear.”

“This is a momentous time for the history of Roanoke College,” said Devon Mitchell, a representative from the Student Government Association. “It is a physical marker that we are no longer going to be accepting half truths and instead will be holding ourselves accountable for every part of our story, the good and the bad.”

The plaque unveiling will cap Emancipation Week at the college, which included reading groups and a virtual program.

But the college said in a statement Thursday that the dedication is part of a longer research project to better understand the history of slavery at the college.

Over the next five years, the research will culminate with a public monument that honors contributions of enslaved people from all over southwest Virginia.

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