By Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV
The bell tolled forty-nine times. Clergy and laity read aloud forty-nine names. The congregation stood in silence. They gathered to remember the forty-nine black West Virginians lynched throughout the history of the state. Of the forty-nine murdered, nine names remain unknown. The first lynching occurred in 1892, and the last in 2001. The atrocities happened in Weston, Hamlin, Keystone, Bramwell, Martinsburg, Princeton, Naugatuck, Hinton, Martinsburg, Elkhorn, Fayetteville, Elkins, Glen Jean, Waniesdorf, Madison, Sutton, Huntington, Bluefield, Welch, Grant Town, and Lewisburg.
On June 19, Juneteenth, the West Virginia Council of Churches invited people to “A Service of Remembrance and Repentance.” Originally planned to be held on the steps of the state capitol, a persistent rain forced organizers to move the event to the Trinity Lutheran Church. “This is a night of tears and ash, a night of remembrance and repentance,” said Rev. Jeff Allen, the executive director of the Council. In her opening prayer, Rev. Roberta Smith, president of the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance, invoked the image of the cross as an emblem of suffering, and an instrument of execution. She reflected on the suffering of the forty- nine black people as they too, were executed, innocent of crime, deprived of due process, deprived of life.
In his sermon, Rev. Ron English, president of the West Virginia NAACP, reflected on the forty-nine victims, and he cast those reflections in the light of the meaning of Juneteenth. Remembering June 19, 1865 when Union troops finally reached Galveston, Texas, where the last slaves still did not know yet they were free, English called upon people to accept a mission, a high calling. “We who are living must do a higher thing than dying. For we must work and move and plant,” he said. English went on to say that “the voices from the grave” help us “keep hope alive,” quoting a phrase made famous by Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“It is appropriate that we remember the victims of these crimes, but we cannot do so without acknowledging that these criminal acts were not committed in a vacuum—there were perpetrators who were guilty of the most heinous of sins, the taking of a life, a violation of divine mandate and sacred teachings,” said Rabbi Joe Blair, rabbi of Temple Israel. “The victims are long dead, but the crimes live on, and even though the guilty may be forgotten or adulterated by time, the act of spilling blood is a continuing stain and a mark that taints this very land on which these acts were committed. Our state bears these marks in its land and fiber,” the rabbi cautioned.
Invoking a poem called “Each Of Us Has A Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk, Rabbi Blair noted, “…each one of the victims—we recall them as individuals—each had a name worthy of being remembered.”
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, resident bishop of the West Virginia United Methodist Conference, and current president of the West Virginia Council of Churches, called upon white West Virginians to reckon with the reality of our collective sin. “As white people there are some things we can do to work for justice and righteousness as we remember and celebrate Juneteenth. We can preach and teach about the current face of racism in our various faith communities. White people must become more aware and grapple with their role in perpetuating racism and then work to ‘let justice roll,’” she said.
Bishop Steiner Ball also encouraged white people to open up their horizons to the stories of Black people. “We can learn about the history of black persons in our own areas and work to develop ways to be a part of making tangible amends and reparations.” She went on to say that faith leaders can gather small groups together and invite Black teachers and historians to illuminate and educate “so that we can build awareness and continue to learn and grow, remember and confess, repent and be transformed.”
Bishop Mark Brennan, bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese of the Catholic Church, drew parallels between the forty-nine lynchings in West Virginians to the hate crimes of Nazi Germany in the Holocaust, and the recent slaughter of Jewish people in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg. Eleven people were killed in the mass shooting, on October 27, 2018. Although not in West Virginia, Brennan said, this heinous crime occurred very near us.
The somber service was yet punctuated with joyous music from the Worship Chorus of the St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Freedom Singers. The St. Paul AME Worship Chorus shared “We Shall Wear a Crown” by Rex Nolan. The singers swayed in rhythm, and their voices melded in harmony as they sang, “I am going to put on my robe/ and tell the story/ how I made it home.”
Those words echoed through the evening of Juneteenth, on the eve of West Virginia Day, words clinging to faith, yearning for home. Those lyrics echoed as the names, known and unknown, of the forty-nine continue to ring out into the West Virginia wind, haunting, pained, mourned, to be remembered, forever.