On Pilgrimage for Racial Justice across Virginia, Episcopalians confront horrors of slavery, seek healing

August 20, 2019

Marchers file out of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, during the first night of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 16, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Alexandria, Virginia] In the heavy, humid evening air, dozens of people streamed through the gates of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria’s Old Town district on Aug. 16 for the first event of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice. Organized by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Britain’s North American colonies, the two-day pilgrimage featured a series of memorials, marches and services across the state, from Alexandria (just across the Potomac from Washington) to Abingdon (deep in the heart of Appalachia, near the border with Tennessee).

This journey of remembrance and healing began where the journeys of many victims of the slave trade ended. As its name suggests, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery is not a typical graveyard. In fact, until 2007 it was the site of a gas station and office building. But it contains the remains of about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria during the Civil War to escape slavery. Considered “contraband of war” by the Union, they found freedom in Alexandria, but endured squalid living conditions in makeshift refugee camps. Already weak and sick from lives of hard labor, thousands died.

These graves at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery were once covered over by a gas station. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

Today, the cemetery is an open field, with some of the graves marked with stones saying simply “GRAVE OF AN ADULT” or “GRAVE OF A CHILD.” A memorial with a statue and a wall containing some of the names of those buried there stand in the center. The recently re-dedicated cemetery embodies the theme of the pilgrimage itself: unearthing a painful history that has lain beneath the surface, and restoring the sacred dignity of those who were dehumanized by a belief system that survives in different forms to this day.

The Rev. Melissa Hays-Smith speaks at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

The pilgrimage was organized by the Rev. Melissa Hays-Smith, canon for justice and reconciliation ministries of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, who wanted to commemorate the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia in late August 1619. But the landing site near Jamestown is far outside her diocese.

“Being in the mountains of Virginia, we don’t have Jamestown, we don’t have a lot of places from the early history” of slavery, Hays-Smith said. “But then we soon realized that the land where we are played a very significant role in this forced migration of African Americans.”

The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia contains a long stretch of the Slavery Trail of Tears, described as “the great missing migration” by Smithsonian magazine. In the half-century before the Civil War, about 1 million slaves were forcibly moved from Maryland and Virginia, where the tobacco industry was waning, to the Deep South, where they were sold to work on cotton and sugar plantations. The Slavery Trail of Tears was 20 times larger than its namesake, the Native American removal campaign of the 1830s, and the slaves were often forced to walk over 1,000 miles in chains.

Hays-Smith and the clergy of her diocese reached out to African American communities and churches along the route to put together the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice, and the response was enthusiastic. Though the stops on the pilgrimage were geographically linked by the Slavery Trail of Tears, the events they commemorated spanned centuries of racial injustice, from slave trading to lynchings to “urban renewal” projects that destroyed black neighborhoods, highlighting the fact that systemic racism in America did not end with emancipation or the civil rights movement.

That’s why the icon of a labyrinth was used as a logo for the pilgrimage, Hays-Smith explained at the first stop in Alexandria.

“As we’ve been talking about this, we recognized that this pathway to reconciliation is very much like a labyrinth. And unfortunately, history has repeated itself, and that’s why we can focus on so many different events,” she told the crowd at the cemetery, during a program that included song, prayer and reflection.

One of the other speakers that evening, the Rev. Kim Coleman – newly elected president of the Union of Black Episcopalians – touched on that theme as the crowd prepared to march through the streets of Alexandria.

“We march, remembering the reality that the vestiges of slavery we thought had long passed away are ever-present … Some ask the question, do black lives matter? We march because black lives do matter, tomorrow, today and yesterday,” she said to shouts of “Amen!”

Marchers walk through Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia, during the first night of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 16, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

After singing “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” the crowd silently marched through Old Town, their faces illuminated by the LED candles they held and the red and blue lights of police escorts. People in the restaurants and bars that line Washington Street gazed out at the procession as it made its way to the building where Isaac Franklin and John Armfield – “the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade,” according to Smithsonian – had their offices and slave pens. Franklin and Armfield sold about 20,000 slaves through those slave pens, according to Alton Wallace, who spoke that evening.

Marchers sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the Franklin & Armfield Slave Office in Alexandria, Virginia, during the first night of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 16, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

At the Franklin & Armfield House, the crowd shared a moment of prayer and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes called “the black national anthem.” It was too dark for those without candles to read the sheet music they’d been given, but it didn’t matter. They knew this one.

‘We remember and we repent’

It was even hotter the next morning, Aug. 17, in the picturesque town of Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from showing up, excited to march through the downtown streets. They gathered in front of the old Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, the first church established by African Americans west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Rev. Shelby Ochs Owen speaks to the crowd near the old Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Staunton, Virginia, during the second day of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

“I’ve often wondered about those black folks who remained here in Dixie when the war was done,” said the Rev. Edward Scott, the pastor. “But they stayed just the same, and in an act of faith, which is the substance of things hoped for in the evidence of things certainly not seen, they established a church. … They built this fortress to secure their prosperity, and to honor the God who troubled the waters to dissolve bondage.”

Leaders from Allen and the local Episcopal church led the crowd in a responsive litany that traced the long history of systemic racism in America, from slavery to the Ku Klux Klan to Jim Crow to present-day voter suppression and unequal policing of neighborhoods. After each prompt, the people responded in a loud, clear voice, “We remember and we repent.”

Marchers walk into downtown Staunton, Virginia, during the second day of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

Then the crowd marched into downtown Stanton, a district full of well-preserved 19th century architecture. But not all of the city was considered worth preserving. The march became a tour of what was once a black neighborhood north of downtown, razed in the mid-20th century to make room for a mall that was never even built. Historians and senior citizens pointed out the sites of black businesses and homes where there is now a row of banks, parking lots and a Domino’s Pizza.

A hundred or so people participated, representing a diverse mix of ages, races and religious backgrounds. Stephanie Johnson, an elderly member of Allen Chapel and a descendant of its first pastor, wheeled her oxygen tank behind her as she walked.

“We are all people – doesn’t matter what color you are, what church you go to,” she said. “Today has been great. I’m satisfied.”

Katherine Low, who brought her 5-year-old daughter on the march, is a chaplain and professor at Mary Baldwin University, a racially diverse liberal arts college in Staunton. She said she came to support the community, but also to learn.

“It’s important for me to understand the systems that my students face that I have the privilege of not having to face,” said Low, who is white.

While spirits were high in Staunton, the next event, in Roanoke, was somber and sobering: a service of remembrance for the victims of two lynchings in 1892 and 1893. It took place in the garden of a Lutheran church near the sites of the lynchings of William Lavender and Thomas Smith.

Lavender and Smith were both accused of assaulting white women, but they were hanged and riddled with bullets before they could ever stand trial.

The Revs. Melissa Hays-Smith, Lyle Morton and David Jones bow their heads in prayer at a memorial service for lynching victims in Roanoke, Virginia, during the second day of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

“We come in remembrance of those whose lives were sacrificed on the altar of racism, hatred, bigotry, but ultimately because of fear,” the Rev. David Jones, a Baptist pastor, said in the invocation. “We come because we serve and celebrate a God who still transforms victims into victors.”

Jones urged those in attendance to look on the lynchings not merely as historical events, but as dire warnings.

“Today, let us be illuminated, motivated and even infuriated if necessary, so that no one can say that they were ignorant of the evil that still percolates just beneath the surface of our well-practiced civility,” he said.

After historical accounts of the lynchings were read, the Rev. Lyle Morton, a Methodist pastor, vividly recalled being warned about the price he could pay simply for looking or moving a certain way.

“I, being a black man growing up in Prince Edward County, was taught to walk so that I wouldn’t become a fruit,” he told the crowd, a reference to the “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” in the song “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday.

To Radford and Abingdon

The fourth event on the pilgrimage was held in a park in Radford on the wide New River, which slaves in Franklin & Armfield’s chains had to ford at great peril while their masters went across in boats. Today, a high bridge carries the Lee Highway over the river, and clumps of teenagers floated by on inner tubes as the service began with the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

The featured speaker in Radford was Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center and professor of sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. A distinguished scholar who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in his youth, Reed is renowned for his lectures, which showcase his encyclopedic knowledge of African American history.

But his remarks in Radford were different. As he began to speak, his voice trembled.

“I’m still a little emotional,” he said, from hearing “Wade in the Water.”

Wornie Reed speaks at Bisset Park in Radford, Virginia, during the second day of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

“The song is very meaningful to me,” he went on. “A lot of memories came back as we sit here and look out at the river and the green trees and all of that. I’m reminded of the day that I was taken down to the creek to be baptized in McIntosh, Alabama. And that’s the song they sang.”

Among the founders of the church that baptized him was his great-grandfather, a former slave.

In his prepared remarks, Reed recounted the horrific conditions on the Slavery Trail of Tears and its lingering consequences: economic injustice and voter suppression.

“There are some communities where you can still see the scars,” he said. “So this is, as we said earlier, not a happy time. But it’s a time to recognize and to realize some things that happened that brought us to today.”

The pilgrimage concluded with a “Communion Service of Lament, Reconciliation and Commitment” at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon, another town whose main street still looks much as it did when the Slavery Trail of Tears ran through it.

The Community Choir performs at the Communion Service of Lament, Reconciliation and Commitment at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon, Virginia, during the second day of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

The service was celebrated by the Rt. Rev. Mark Bourlakas, bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, with the assistance of several black clergy members from nearby churches. Congregants from the various churches led a Litany of Repentance and Commitment similar to the one used in Staunton. Two members of the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission spoke. But perhaps the most moving aspect of the service happened during Communion, when the invited pastors offered healing prayers for all, embracing those who approached them and anointing them with oil.

The Rev. Sandra Jones offers healing prayers during the Communion Service of Lament, Reconciliation and Commitment at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon, Virginia, during the second day of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

By the time everyone had returned to their seats, several people remarked that the atmosphere in the church seemed different – that something had changed.

“I believe that this is the beginning,” said the Rev. Joseph Green Jr., who gave the sermon. “This is a moment in time that we can use to propel us into the next generations.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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