Roanoke College pays homage to enslaved skilled laborers

Tribute – One of two bronze plaques affixed to the columns of Roanoke College’s Administration building front entry.

by Shawn Nowlin

The enslaved laborers who primarily built Roanoke College over 175 years ago were recognized on April 8. During the observance, members of the College and Roanoke Valley community congregated as a small group of Maroon undergraduates unveiled two bronze plaques on the Administration building.

In his comments at the ceremony, President Michael Maxey said, “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.”

He added, “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.”

Roanoke College was founded as a boys’ preparatory school by Lutheran pastors David F. Bittle and Christopher C. Baughmann in 1842 – just 19 years before the start of the Civil War. Contrary to what some believe, the principal of the four-year war fought between northern states loyal to the Union and southern states that had seceded to form the Confederate States of America was the status of slavery. Books that delve into the true history of slavery can be found in the school’s library.

Jordan Robinson (left) and another member (unidentified) of Roanoke College’s Black Student Alliance pictured at the college’s Administration Building with the new plaque after the dedication ceremony held April 8, 2021.

The plague dedication was well-received by faculty, students, alumni organizers and community residents.

“Today is part of a longer research process that is seeking to better understand the history of slavery at Roanoke College,” Associate Professor of History Dr. Jesse Bucher said. “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.”

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 honoring 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.”