Roanoke College honors enslaved laborers who helped build early campus buildings

Roanoke Valley News

SALEM, Va. (WFXR) — On Thursday afternoon, Roanoke College plans to pay tribute to the enslaved laborers who played a historically significant role in the college’s construction more than 175 years ago as part of a weeklong celebration of Emancipation Day in Virginia.

At noon on Thursday, April 8, school officials say Roanoke College will unveil two bronze plaques on the Administration Building, the campus’ oldest and most prominent building, in honor of the lives of the enslaved skilled laborers who built the college directly or who generated wealth invested in the college. 

“This will be a historic day of recognition of a long-forgotten part of our history that needs to be remembered and reclaimed,” Roanoke College President Michael C. Maxey said about Thursday’s plaque unveiling.  

Dr. Jesse Bucher, associate professor of history and director of the college’s Center for Studying Structures of Race, says the plaque dedication is part of a longer research process aiming to better understand the history of slavery at Roanoke College.

Even though attendance will be limited at the at the dedication ceremony, you can watch a livestream of the event by clicking here.

According to Ken Belton ‘81, a current member of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees, acknowledging the college’s past will benefit both present and future members of the Roanoke College community. 

“The history of our past will serve as a guide for educating our students who will live and learn in a community that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive,” Belton said. “It’s this wisdom and learning from the past that will ensure Roanoke College will have a strong future. I appreciate the College commemorating our history.” 

Roanoke College says Emancipation Day is observed in Virginia on April 3, commemorating the first weeks of April 1865 when the majority of people who were enslaved gained their freedom.

This month’s weeklong celebration of Emancipation Day at Roanoke College — which will reportedly become an annual event — not only aims to connect to local and regional history, but it also aims to connect the college’s celebration of Juneteenth to a time when students, faculty, and staff are on campus. 

The college says the events for the week include the plaque dedication, as well as discussions among the “What is Equity?” reading group and a presentation on the “Comparative Histories of Slavery and Education,” all of which were held earlier this week.

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