We Remember, We Repent

By Jenny Garrett Fife (jgfife@gmail.com)

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin.

I am a child of the South. By the early 1700s, all my ancestors had arrived in Virginia.  Some owned slaves.  One was an overseer.  They all fought in the “War Between the States.”  John Wilkes Booth was shot in my great-grandfather’s barn.

I grew up outside of Richmond, lived in an all-white neighborhood, swam in an all-white pool, and attended an all-white Episcopal church. The only African American person I knew was Mabel, our maid.

In 1975, my senior year of high school, everything changed.  Students from inner-city Richmond were bused to our suburban public school. It was a chaotic, ugly year.  Rumors swirled that a black student pushed my elderly government teacher down the steps.  Another black student gave birth in the clinic.  “We” were privileged, wealthy, and college bound.  “They” were not.  It was not a “kumbaya” year. Every morning I left for school feeling a mixture of anxiety, fear, and dread.  I had very little interaction with the new students.  None of the students were in my advanced placement classes.

Before entering William and Mary the following year, I was assigned a roommate, and we began corresponding over the summer. Only when I arrived in Williamsburg, did I discover she was African American. It was a shock to me and more so, to my parents.  A daughter of a professor at St. Paul’s College, Michelle was calm, focused, and pre-med. I was scrambling academically and socially, but Michelle was not. Even now, I can see her sitting cross-legged on her bed, surrounded by enormous biology and chemistry textbooks, studying into the night. She later became a doctor.

After William and Mary, I embarked on an elementary teaching career in public schools that spanned 28 years. Teaching was a calling.  I was always drawn to schools with what we now call “at-risk populations” and in rural Virginia, that often meant I taught racially-diverse classes. My kindergarten students were color-blind, even though their parents were not.  My colleagues were black.  I had a black principal. I made sure to find inclusive story books, taught units on the Underground Railroad, and hinted at Thomas Jefferson’s inconsistencies. By then, years after my chaotic senior year experience, public schools felt more like God’s welcome table with opportunities and resources for all.

But now, in retirement, I find myself once again living and worshipping in a mostly all-white world like I once did as a girl growing up outside Richmond. I’m uncomfortable and uneasy about that and miss the richness and diversity of public schools. Since “Charlottesville” (where I lived and taught), I’ve felt propelled to come to terms with my family’s past, and how I’ve benefited from white privilege. I’m trying hard to understand and grapple with “institutional racism.”

So when I first heard about “A Pilgrimage for Racial Justice,” I knew I wanted to participate. The pilgrimage commemorated the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in an English colony in August 1619.  The pilgrimage, planned by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia over August 16 and 17, was experiential; it was meant to be different from reading articles and books, attending lectures, and listening to podcasts.

The pilgrimage was powerful, disturbing, and hopeful. We travelled to five pilgrimage stops down the western spine of Virginia (Route 11) from Alexandria to Abingdon; the same route one million slaves were forced to march on their way to slave markets in the deep South between 1810 and 1860.  My husband, Richard, and I decided to try to complete the entire pilgrimage.

Our first stop was Friday night In Alexandria. We gathered at a graveyard of 1,800 freed slaves, dominated by a towering bronze statue sculpture. Until ten years ago, those graves had been covered over first by a gas station and later, by an office building. We prayed, sang, and heard stories, as we did at each subsequent stop.  Then we marched silently over a mile to the offices of the slave traders, Franklin and Armfield, who became wealthy with the sale of 20,000 enslaved Virginians.  By now, it was dark and we were tired and sweaty as we prayed and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

On Saturday, Richard and I were on the road by 6:30 a.m., racing towards Staunton, gathering at the site of the first African-American church west of the Blue Ridge.  It was getting hot and initially, just a handful of people gathered.  By 10:00, my throat tightened with emotion as hundreds of people started pouring down the narrow streets.  We were handed fans, so welcome in the heat, printed with the words to spirituals. We prayed and sang and then we marched again, this time along a route where “urban renewal” had claimed 26 African-American businesses and 19 homes but the hoped-for developers never materialized.

At 1:00 p.m., a good crowd gathered in Roanoke near St. Mark’s Lutheran Church where there was shade and benches and cool water on a now stifling afternoon.  We were near the spot where Thomas Smith was lynched on September 21, 1893.  The speakers spared no details of the lynching, nor of the lynching of Mr. William Lavender, murdered on February 12, 1892 near the Roanoke River. It was anguishing to hear these painful stories and almost impossible to believe that these lynchings had taken place in our city.

By the time we arrived in Radford at 3:30 p.m. near the New River where shackled slaves had been forced to cross, the sun and the humidity were fierce. Someone handed me a cold bottle of water and I was inordinately thankful. Dr. Wornie Reed, scholar and riveting story teller, recounted the history of the 1619 arrival of the slaves.  He reminded us that those first twenty slaves had been traded for “victuals,” food or provisions.

The last stop was Abingdon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church where a huge church supper awaited us in the basement.  At 6:30 p.m., the pilgrimage ended with an overflow crowd of black and white Virginians worshipping together with gospel songs and plaintive Appalachian music. In a litany of repentance and commitment, we repeated, “We remember and we repent.” I was thankful to lift up the pain, the stories, and the horror and give it to God.

The pilgrimage was exhausting. Each stop along our journey was searing, emotionally and physically. The weather was oppressive, just at is probably was in in August 1619.  Richard and I drove 761 miles over two days.

The pilgrimage was devastating. It was excruciating to hear those terrible stories of torture, injustice, and suffering. Stories that broke my heart.  We heard from great-grandsons of slaves.  Black men who’d been told as boys never to run for fear of being shot. We were confronted by “what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

The pilgrimage was hopeful.  Somehow, 500 people thought it was important to show up on a sweltering August day to participate. Each stop was locally planned by diverse groups coming together. For many, the pilgrimage was just part of area efforts to face and deal with issues around racial justice.  People had stepped out of their pews to tackle an uncomfortable past. 

The pilgrimage was inspiring.  I am proud that my diocese, one of the smaller ones in the Episcopal church, had pulled off this complicated pilgrimage and continues an important conversation on how to combat racism.  I’m thankful that Deacon Melissa Hays-Smith provided the leadership and vision for this creative commemoration.

I’m grateful that Richard and I could make this remarkable and disquieting pilgrimage.  I’m not sure what’s next.  Perhaps St. John’s might offer “Sacred Ground,” the Episcopal Church’s 10-week film- and readings-based series on race, grounded in faith. I need and want to keep learning, reading, and daring to have courageous conversations about race.

Egan Mallard, Assistant Editor for Episcopal News Service made the whole pilgrimage as well and has written a marvelous article.

Photo credit: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

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