Roanoke Equal Justice Initiative works to remember lives lost in 1890s city lynchings

Historical markers will be placed in the city as memorials

They say it’s important for a city to know it’s history – even the parts that aren’t told too often.

ROANOKE, Va. – They say it’s important for a city to know its history – even the parts that aren’t told too often.

The Roanoke Equal Justice Initiative aims to do just that by telling the history of African Americans in the Star City.

Dr. Brenda Hale, chairwoman of the Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project, said that after three years of hard work, the group is ready to finally showcase some of the information they have found.

“Now we were ready for the community to know what we had been doing and for the community to know that we’re getting our first marker here in the city of Roanoke and that will be honoring the lynching of Mr. Thomas Smith,” Hale said.

Throughout Thursday evening, community members and leaders learned about the lives of William Lavender and Thomas Smith. Both were African American men lynched in the city back in the late 1890s.

Now both men will have historical markers serving as a reminder of those events. Thomas Smith’s marker will be unveiled on Sep. 21, exactly 129 years after he was lynched.

“The community … they don’t know all the struggles that black people have been through here,” Hale said. “It shouldn’t be paved over, concrete over, buried … it needs to be told because guess what, it’s in our D-N-A,” Hale said.

Hale was joined by Councilman Bill Bestpitch in these efforts. He made it clear to the audience that it’s about the history and truth more so than the guilt.

“We’re not here to make anybody feel guilty. We’re not here to accuse anybody of anything. We’re here to bring truth to the table,” Bestpitch said.

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Connor Dietrich joined the 10 News team in June 2022. Originally from Castle Rock, Colorado, he's ready to step away from the Rockies and step into the Blue Ridge scenery.