During a press conference held Tuesday, Oct. 11 local attorney John P. Fishwick announced his proposal to rename the Federal Poff Building in downtown Roanoke after Reuban E. Lawson, a local lawyer who is considered by some to be an unsung “civil rights titan.” Lawson’s career launched into high gear in 1954 following the historic landmark “Brown vs Board of Education ruling against the segregation of public schools nationwide.
Fishwick’s efforts are a bold step for racial equality adding to the movement across the country to remove –in this case, alter–monuments that are symbols of America’s racist past – a past that continues to plague the present and unfortunately the future.
“A federal courthouse is where citizens go to vindicate their rights and it should be named after someone who reflects that principle,” said Fishwick before a room filled with reporters. Joining Fishwick was Rev. Edward T. Burton who now at 95 is retired after fifty years as pastor of Sweet Union Baptist Church. Adding a personal account, Rev. Burton briefly told of being on the front lines with Lawson during that critical period in Roanoke’s storied past and spoke of the prominent lawyer as a friend.
“I knew Reuban Lawson personally, as at that time I was vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP which use to meet in his office. I’m very much aware of the individual cases he handled to integrate the schools in Southwest Virginia, even though it had been done on a national level,” said Rev. Burton. Although Lawson was overshadowed by Oliver Hill and much hasn’t been said about him, I know him to be the one who took a lot of these local cases to court. We as a people have much of what we have today because of the work of Reuban Lawson.”
As a veteran Rev. Burton occasionally visits the Poff building and said he was sensitive to visiting a building that “bears the name of a man that signed a manifesto that hurt my people.”
Closing his remarks, Rev. Burton emphasized his support for Fishwick and his efforts to right the wrongs and said “ I hope that one day I will be able to go to that building as the Lawson Building rather than the Poff Building.
In a letter written to several high-profile federal officials validating his recommendation, Fishwick effectively highlights Lawson’s immense record of civil rights achievements against the likes of one Richard H. Poff for whom the facility is named. Fishwick mentioned Poff’s convictions of being in opposition to racial integration and also voting against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. History shows Poff also signed the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, known as the Southern Manifesto– a measure in opposition to racial integration written in 1956 and signed by a group of Senators and other Representatives from the South.
In support of John Fishwick’s efforts to join the fight for balance against a city’s racist past, the following excerpt from his official letter to the aforementioned Federal official details facts strongly supporting his proposal to rename the Poff Building.
Dear Senators and Congressmen:
My name is John P. Fishwick, Jr., and I am an attorney based in Roanoke, Virginia. From 2015 to 2017, I proudly served as the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. In both that capacity and as an attorney in private practice, I have spent much of my career in the Richard H. Poff Federal Building here in Roanoke. I write to you today to respectfully propose legislation renaming the Federal Building to honor one of Roanoke’s undeservedly forgotten legal titans: civil rights attorney Reuben E. Lawson.
Mr. Lawson was an African American attorney who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement in Virginia. A 1945 graduate of Howard University Law School, he practiced law in his home city of Roanoke from an office building he had built for himself. Mr. Lawson was also a prominent member of the community, at various times serving as the Master of Alleghany Lodge (affiliated with Prince Hall Masons), Vice-Chairman of the local African American Shriners group (Oasis of Roanoke), and Vice-President of the Roanoke Civic League. Mr. Lawson also gave public educational talks at locations such as the Gainsboro Branch Library.
Throughout his career, Mr. Lawson worked alongside a number of prominent civil rights attorneys of the time, including Oliver Hill. Mr. Lawson was also the lawyer for the Roanoke chapter of the NAACP, working directly with its executive board and advocating desegregation to the Roanoke City School Board. Though quiet and soft-spoken, Mr. Lawson worked tirelessly and passionately for social justice; he wholeheartedly believed in putting an end to segregation, and that the best way to achieve that goal would be through the court system.
Indeed, Mr. Lawson filed and argued a number of significant cases before the judges of the Western District of Virginia to put an end to segregation, which unfortunately remained in place in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision of Brown v. Board of Education. He filed the first desegregation suit in Southwest Virginia, Walker v. Floyd County School Board, Civil Action No. 1012 (W.D. Va. 1960), delivering the suit to the Court by hand and marching the young African American plaintiffs into the federal courthouse. This case resulted in Judge Roby C. Thompson ordering that Floyd County admit 13 African American students into its high schools, which before then enrolled white students exclusively—despite the mandate of Brown some five years prior. Similar efforts soon followed in Pulaski County, Grayson County, Roanoke County, Roanoke City, and Lynchburg, among other places, leading to a number of judicial orders requiring these localities to enroll African American children in the same manner as their white peers.
Mr. Lawson’s battle against the evil of segregation was not limited to the courtroom. For example, in 1961, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts were set to play an exhibition game at Roanoke’s Victory Stadium. Both teams featured African American star players, yet the stands at Victory Stadium remained segregated. Mr. Lawson took this issue to the Roanoke City Council, ably arguing that their oath to the Constitution of the United States required them to integrate the stands. Ultimately, Roanoke officials decided to ignore Virginia segregation laws and integrate the stadium, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Lawson and his contemporaries, including Reverend R.R. Wilkinson, who had organized a player boycott over the segregated stands.
All Southwest Virginians owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Lawson for his important work in the 1950s and 1960s, and Mr. Lawson deserves to be recognized for his contributions to ending Jim Crow. As a native and longtime resident of Roanoke, I can think of no more deserving honor than naming the Federal Building in Roanoke—the current home of the court in which Mr. Lawson valiantly fought segregationist policies—after him. Mr. Lawson was truly Roanoke’s own civil rights attorney, embodying not only the city but the spirit of its diverse population.
By contrast, the Federal Building’s current namesake, Richard H. Poff, has a more limited connection to Roanoke compared to Mr. Lawson. And while Mr. Poff should be commended for his service as a member of the armed forces, Congressman, and Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, it is an unfortunate historical fact that Mr. Poff signed the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, known informally as the Southern Manifesto, in opposition to racial integration of public places, and voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Finally, as noted above, the Federal Building was completed in 1975. As we are nearing the 50th anniversary of the Federal Building, the time is ripe to change its namesake. For all the reasons stated in this letter, Reuben E. Lawson is a perfect choice.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. I have enclosed with this letter a draft bill that I hope you will sponsor. If you should have any questions or wish to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to contact me.
With kind regards, I remain
Very truly yours,
John P. Fishwick, Jr.
Greenway #1. Cutline: Volunteer artists work on new murals at the Roanoke River Greenway in Burlington Park on Benington Street in Southeast Roanoke.
Greenway #2.Cutline: Vibrant colorful images of the new murals at the Roanoke River Greenway in Burlington Park on Bennington Street in Southeast Roanoke.