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A powerful sign: Roanoke historical marker about lynching brings races together

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A Roanoke racial justice group planted a blue historical marker Wednesday near the city intersection where newspaper accounts documented the hanging of a Black man by a white mob nearly 13 decades ago.

About 150 onlookers witnessed the observance and contributed jubilant cries to finally see public acknowledgement of victim Thomas Smith’s seizure from authorities and brutal slaying on Sept. 21, 1893.

He had no trial, much less been convicted, and authorities determined after his death that he played no role in an assault on a white woman for which he was accused, according to the presentation.

Members of the Roanoke Coalition of the Equal Justice Initiative's Community Remembrance Project unveil an historical marker about the 1893 lynching of Thomas Smith during a ceremony at Franklin Road at Mountain Avenue Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, in Roanoke.

A Vinton woman who attended the observance at Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue described Thomas as her great-grandmother’s brother.

“My family never thought something like this would happen,” Teresa Smith, 55, told the crowd in a soft voice.

The group behind the project, the Roanoke EJI Community Remembrance Project Coalition, had put out feelers some time ago to find a Smith family member but no one came forward — until Teresa Smith approached coalition Chairwoman Brenda Hale at the Henry Street Heritage Festival Saturday, Hale said.

The marker project, three years in the making, arose from an ongoing conversation about the city’s history and a shared desire to counteract racism, organizers said. The Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Alabama, legal defense and advocacy organization, provided the sign through its community remembrance project and has helped guide local organizers.

As the moment of the unveiling drew near, a pastor called for a moment of silence — and silence came, except for the tweets of a group of swallows high overhead.

“All of us must make peace with this, all of Roanoke city,” said Amy Christine Hodge, pastor at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roanoke.

Smiling committee members pulled off the sign’s temporary plastic covering and then stooped to collect soil from below into a jar. The act of collecting soil was “to commemorate the blood and the tears that fell into the soil of those who were lynched,” said committee member Jennie Waering.

The soil will go to EJI headquarters, which operates the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, sometimes called the national lynching memorial, and a museum about slavery and its legacy. EJI said it has documented 4,400 racial terror lynchings.

“This is what Roanoke is about,” Hale said. “This is true diversity. This is what it looks like.”

Spectator John Johnson of Roanoke, a white man who attended with his wife, said he wanted to be “part of something our community is doing in remembrance of something we hate to know happened.”

Dashielle Larson-Harris, a white Roanoke native who grew up in walking distance of the site, knew nothing of the Smith lynching until his Roanoke history teacher at Community High School taught about it, he said. Before, he knew white people had lynched Black people, but it was “just kind of this thing in history,” Larson-Harris, 16, said. Finding out a lynching happened down the street at a location he passes by often “is pretty crazy” and he felt empathy, he said.

“Powerful, long overdue, as we know,” said Felicia Johnson, a Black retired preschool teacher from Vinton, who was in the crowd.

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