Roanoke College today paid tribute to the enslaved laborers who had an integral, historically significant role in building the College more than 175 years ago.
During a brief but moving ceremony, members of the College community gathered as a small group of students unveiled 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.
“Today is an expression of discovery — discovery of our own history, and the hope for the future discovery that historical research can bring to us,” Roanoke College President Michael C. Maxey said before the unveiling. “We must always want to know more about our past. We must always be committed to the pursuit of truth as it unfolds before us…Once we find it, we must share it, and today is a day for sharing new truths about who we are and who helped make us who we are.”
“May today’s gathering be but one small, first step for our College in telling the story of our origin, and publicly and finally honor the memory, skill and labor of those who had no choice but to build. We honor each of them whose labor has lasted and whose sweat, tears and blood cry out from these bricks with their stories.”
Rev. Christopher Bowen, dean of the chapel at Roanoke College
The plaques have been mounted on two large columns at the Administration Building’s front entrance. One plaque reads: “Honoring the lives of the enslaved skilled laborers whose contributions to Roanoke College must be acknowledged and always remembered.” The second plaque provides details about the laborers’ contributions and the purpose of recognizing those contributions.
“May today’s gathering be but one small, first step for our College in telling the story of our origin, and publicly and finally honor the memory, skill and labor of those who had no choice but to build,” the Rev. Christopher Bowen, dean of the chapel at Roanoke College, offered in an invocation. “We honor each of them whose labor has lasted and whose sweat, tears and blood cry out from these bricks with their stories.”
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. Over the next five years, this sustained inquiry will culminate in the construction of a public monument that honors the historical contributions of enslaved persons in Southwest Virginia, he said.
The ceremony capped Emancipation Week at the College, a week of activities that followed the April 3 observance of Emancipation Day in Virginia. Activities included reading groups and a virtual program about the histories of slavery and emancipation.
You can watch the whole ceremony in the video below.