There are more than a few curiosities regarding Roanoke’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. One is the name. Why’s a church at Third Street and Patton Avenue Northwest called “Fifth Avenue?” That’s easy.
At its dedication on June 28, 1896, the church stood on Fifth Avenue in the community of Gainsboro. By 1959, when a fire destroyed the original wood frame structure, the neighborhood’s formerly numbered avenues had been renamed after Virginia governors. (John M. Patton, a Whig, served in the office for 12 days in 1841.)
Nevertheless, the congregation decided to keep the original name.
Here’s another curiosity: Why does a predominantly Black congregation have a stained-glass window honoring Stonewall Jackson, a slaveholder and probably the second-most famous Confederate general?
At a time when Confederate memorials, statues and symbols are falling like ninepins in a bowling league match, this one requires a more nuanced and lengthier explanation.
For that, I’m indebted to Joyce Ann Bolden, a Fifth Avenue Presbyterian elder, and Michael Blankenship, the church’s historian. (By the way, my colleague Tonia Moxley wrote about the subject back in 2011.)
The window doesn’t depict Jackson himself. Rather, the scene appears to be a sedate military encampment along a river, with a clearing on one side and trees on the other. Blue mountains rise in the background, beneath a cloud-streaked sky.
But the lower inscription, in all capital letters, is an unmistakable tribute, containing a phrase that’s said to be the mortally wounded general’s dying words: “In memory of Stonewall Jackson. Let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”
Before we get into the back story of that window, let me tell you a bit more about Roanoke’s first Black Presbyterian church. It was an important institution in its heyday. One of the founders was Lucy Addison, the educator who launched Roanoke’s first Black high school. A city middle school is named after her today. Another member, Dr. L.C. Downing, was a physician who helped found Burrell Memorial Hospital—Roanoke’s Black hospital in the days of segregation.
Also among the congregation was Oliver Hill, the famed civil rights lawyer who began his law practice here in Roanoke before joining forces with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“A very educated group of African Americans started the church,” Bolden told me Tuesday. “At some point, I would say 70% or more of its members were college graduates.”
Blankenship’s 115-page history traces efforts to establish the church to a report in the Jan. 15, 1890, edition of the Roanoke Daily Times.
“A magic lantern exhibition was given at Rorer Hall last night for the benefit of the colored Presbyterian church, of this city,” the newspaper noted. (In those pre-movie days, magic lanterns were basically elaborate theater slide shows.)
The church grew out of a Sunday school class that originally met in a hall at the corner of (then) Fifth Avenue and Gainsboro Road. First Presbyterian, a white congregation that met on Church Avenue downtown, later invited the group to hold services in its adjoining lecture hall.
The first pastor was the Rev. Peyton Rutherfoord Twine. The second was the Rev. Joseph Lee Spurlarke, who moved services to the basement of Mount Zion AME Church. The third—and most important—was the Rev. Dr. Lylburn Liggins Downing. He assumed the pastorate on July 8, 1894, and led Fifth Avenue Presbyterian for decades.
Downing was the pastor who oversaw the church’s construction. He sketched the design of the Stonewall Jackson memorial window and commissioned its creation, which Blankenship notes was probably fashioned by the Temple Art Glass Co. in Chicago.
Downing had it installed as a centerpiece, easily viewable from Fifth Avenue, in 1906, a decade after the building’s dedication.
Why? That’s the story.
Lylburn Liggins Downing was born in May 1862 to enslaved parents in Lexington. His father, Lilburn Downing, had been one of 26 slaves owned by former Virginia Gov. James McDowell.
When McDowell died in 1852, ownership of Lilburn Downing passed to McDowell’s daughter, Sophonisba. She married a Lexington lawyer and soldier who taught math at Virginia Military Institute, Col. James W. Massey.
Downing’s mother, Ellen Harvey, was a slave owned by David L. Hopkins, a wealthy Lexington merchant. Lilburn and Ellen met as youths in the same Sunday school class for Black children at Lexington Presbyterian Church. Its founder and their teacher was Thomas Jackson, later dubbed “Stonewall” for his Civil War exploits. He was also a professor at VMI.
Leading a Sunday school class may not sound like a big deal, but it was, considering that age. Virginia law back then made it illegal to teach Black people how to read and write, whether they were freed or not.
Jackson realized he couldn’t teach Christianity to his pupils until they could read the Holy Bible. So he taught them how. And having parents who could read and write gave Lylburn Liggins Downing a huge educational leg up on his peers.
Understandably, not everyone in the Black congregation was thrilled at the idea of that window. It was the largest (and centerpiece) of three stained glass windows that Downing wanted to install.
“The parishioners didn’t want to fund that,” Bolden told me. “So he went to the Daughters of the Confederacy.” They were happy to, Bolden added.
Downing typically explained his feelings about the window by quoting others, Blankenship wrote in the church history. One was his own pastor, Dr. William S. White:
“The Sabbath school founded by General Jackson for the benefit of the blacks was a decided success. This distinguished man threw himself into his work with all his characteristic energy and wisdom. ... Sabbath after Sabbath he would stand before his school of blacks and raise [“Amazing Grace”] and tune for them.
“He issued monthly reports to the owners of the slaves. These reports he delivered in person, calling at each house where one of his pupils lived. Under his management this school became one of the most interesting and useful institutions in Lexington Presbyterian Church.”
Jackson’s financial support for the school continued during the Civil War—he’d send regular letters with contributions to keep classes going.
Blankenship’s history of the church notes: “The unveiling of the Jackson window was national news. Most of the reports of the July 29, 1906, event followed a similar format:
“’A memorial window to Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was dedicated at the Negro Presbyterian Church at Roanoke Sunday. Aside from its own significance, the occasion was made notable by the attendance, in a body, of the Confederates camps of Roanoke and Salem and the chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy of the two places. The chief addresses were by leading white citizens of Roanoke.’”
The Jackson window survived the 1959 fire . By then, Lylburn Liggins Downing had been dead for 22 years. But three of his children remained important members of the congregation, and they wanted the Jackson window installed in the rebuilt church, Bolden said.
Today, it stands behind the altar, not viewable from the street, but dominating the setting within. Items on a table in front of it mostly cover up the inscription.
“There are few folks, like Ms. Bolden, who are very attached to it,” Blankenship told me. “There are some that don’t like the window at all. And there are a lot of people who are ambivalent.”
Bolden said the window scene is “a metaphor for all of us. The whole thing meant, once the war was ended we had to cross the river to find peace,” and heal the racial divide.
That’s still a work in progress.
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