Administration Building with bright blue sky and mountain in background
4.01.2021
By Roanoke College News

Roanoke College to honor enslaved laborers who helped build early College buildings

As part of a weeklong celebration of Emancipation Day in Virginia, Roanoke College will pay tribute to the enslaved laborers who had an integral, historically significant role in building the College more than 175 years ago. 

At noon on April 8, the College will unveil two bronze plaques on the Administration Building, the oldest and most prominent building on campus. The plaques honor the lives of the enslaved skilled laborers who directly built the College, or who generated wealth that was invested in the College. 

“This will be a historic day of recognition of a long-forgotten part of our history that needs to be remembered and reclaimed,” Roanoke College President Michael C. Maxey said of the April 8 plaque unveiling.  

The plaque dedication is part of a longer research process that is seeking to better understand the history of slavery at Roanoke College, said Dr. Jesse Bucher, associate professor of history at Roanoke College and director of the College’s Center for Studying Structures of Race. 

Dr. Bucher wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the Roanoke Times on Sunday, April 4, that went into detail about the commemoration and what it means for the College. You can read it here.

Attendance at the event will be limited due to COVID-19 protocols, but it will be livestreamed here.

Ken Belton ‘81, a current member of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees, said acknowledging the College’s past will benefit current and future members of the Roanoke College community. 

“The history of our past will serve as a guide for educating our students who will live and learn in a community that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive,” Belton said. It’s this wisdom and learning from the past that will ensure Roanoke College will have a strong future. I appreciate the College commemorating our history.” 

“The history of our past will serve as a guide for educating our students who will live and learn in a community that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive. It’s this wisdom and learning from the past which will ensure Roanoke College will have a strong future.”

Ken Belton '81, member of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees

Emancipation Day is observed April 3 in Virginia, commemorating the first weeks of April 1865 when most enslaved people gained their freedom. This celebration of Emancipation Day at Roanoke College, which will become an annual event, connects with Roanoke College’s first public recognition of Juneteenth in June of 2020. 

This month’s weeklong celebration aims to connect to local and regional history, and to connect the College’s celebration of Juneteenth to a time when students, faculty and staff are on campus. 

Events for the week include: 

  • Monday, April 5 at 4 p.m.: “What is Equity?”, a reading group sponsored by the Teaching Collaborative, the Center for Studying Structures of Race, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Dr. Julia Sienkewicz, associate professor of Fine Arts, will lead the discussion. 
  • Tuesday, April 6 at noon: “What is Equity?”, a reading group sponsored by the Teaching Collaborative, the Center for Studying Structures of Race, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Dr. Julia Sienkewicz, associate professor of Fine Arts, will lead the discussion. This session will cover the same content as the Monday meeting, but two sessions were scheduled to provide more flexibility for attendees. 
  • Wednesday, April 7 at 4 p.m.: “Comparative Histories of Slavery and Education.” The presentation  hosted by professors of history Dr. M. Ivonne Wallace Fuentes and Dr. John G. Selby  will examine the history of slavery and emancipation in Virginia and elsewhere. Drs. Fuentes and Selby will each give a short presentation and then will engage in a discussion with attendees. Dr. Selby will focus on the end of the Civil War, while Dr. Fuentes will delve into the ends of slavery in other countries, including Haiti and Brazil, and examine how we can place American slavery in a broader geographical context. Dr. Rob Willingham, associate professor and chairperson of the History department, will moderate that discussion. 
  • Thursday, April 8 at noon: A plaque dedication at the Administration Building honoring enslaved laborers who directly built the College, or who generated wealth that was invested in the College.