Jackson’s ‘colored Sunday school’ class

By Richard G. Williams Jr.
May 6, 2006

A small crowd gathered one day in 1906 in front of the Lexington Presbyterian Church. They were watching as a piece of history was about to disappear.

The memory of the church’s most famous deacon, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, still lingered in the minds and hearts of many Lexingtonians. So did the memory of what Jackson had accomplished in the church building that was being torn down. The church was expanding, and the Lecture Room, as it was known, had outlived its usefulness.

The stately old building had seen many civic gatherings, debates and meetings since it was built in 1835. The Rockbridge Bible Society, of which both Jackson and Robert E. Lee were members (Lee once serving as its president), had met on the first Saturday of every month at 11 a.m. in the building being demolished.

But the structure, which sat next to the main church sanctuary and consisted of one large room, was best remembered for being the location of Jackson’s Sunday school for slaves and free blacks. It was so well remembered, in fact, that it appeared on a postcard, circa 1900, on which it was described as "Stonewall Jackson’s Church, Lexington, Va., in which he served as Deacon for a number of years and where he conducted a Colored Sunday school."

This building had stood as a constant reminder that Jackson was an enigma: a poor, uneducated orphan from the mountains of western Virginia who would graduate from West Point; a shy, backward young man who would become a competent debater and professor at Virginia Military Institute; a staunch Calvinist Presbyterian who questioned the doctrine of predestination; and a fearless Confederate Joshua who would teach slaves and free blacks the way of salvation.

As a wise Providence would have it, as this testament to Jackson’s efforts for black Americans was being destroyed, another one was being created — by the son of two of Jackson’s black converts.

Up the Valley Pike about 60 miles, in Roanoke, Va., the Rev. Lylburn Liggins Downing had envisioned one of the most unusual memorials that ever would honor Jackson. Downing’s parents, Lylburn and Ellen, had been converted to Christ in Jackson’s "colored Sabbath-school."

Born the day after Jackson was wounded at Chancellorsville, the younger Lylburn had grown up hearing his parents speak often of Jackson’s efforts to teach Christianity to the slaves and free blacks in Lexington before the War Between the States.

After the war, he also attended the Sunday school, by then led by Jackson’s brother-in-law, John Thomas Lewis Preston. It was in that class that Downing received the inspiration to become a minister of the Gospel.

While studying for the ministry at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Downing read a biography of Jackson and decided he wanted to make some personal expression of his "admiration and gratitude" to honor the late general and school founder.

As a student at the seminary, Downing taught Latin, and upon his graduation in 1894, he was offered a faculty position. Downing turned down Lincoln’s offer to pursue his true passion: to preach the Gospel and pastor a church.

After graduating from theological studies in 1895, Downing struck out for Roanoke, where he began shepherding a small mission gathering of seven persons. This humble group, which had been meeting for several years, was the genesis of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.Downing continued the faithful stewardship of that church for 42 years, until his death in 1937. He also continued the tradition of the Sabbath, or Sunday, school class he had come to love as a young boy.

Downing wished to influence a whole new generation of young black children with the Gospel. He also was active in Roanoke’s civic affairs. He was the city’s first probation officer, and he became the only black member of Roanoke’s Republican Party committee.

A number of years after Downing had settled in Roanoke and a new church had been built, he was able to fulfill his childhood dream of honoring Jackson.

Downing would not forget the man whom he credited for his family’s Christian heritage. A 100th-anniversary history booklet published by the church in 1992 states: "An influence in his life was General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson who taught a ‘Negro Sunday School Class,’ among whom were Reverend Downing’s parents."

Downing decided to raise funds for a commemorative stained-glass window. The idea of memorializing a Confederate general in a black church raised a few eyebrows. Though ridiculed by some, Downing refused to allow his critics to discourage him.

The window finally was installed on May 10, 1906. This date was significant for two reasons. First, it was on May 10, 1863, that Jackson uttered his immortal dying words: "Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees." Second, 1906 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Jackson’s black Sunday school.

The event made national news, and Downing received letters of commendation from as far away as England. The dedication ceremony was attended by church members and the local Confederate Veterans camp. Many members of the press were on hand for the unveiling, as were a number of prominent Roanoke citizens. The window was Downing’s own design.

The window consists of richly blended colors and is based on Jackson’s dying statement, which appears at the bottom of the window, along with the words, "In Memory of Stonewall Jackson." The scene on the window is of the Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah River with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. There are images of cabins and tents, with guns stacked and soldiers attending to their duties.

In 1959, most of the church was destroyed by fire, and parts of the original window were lost. What remained suffered extensive smoke damage. Fortunately, the remainder was cleaned and restored. Many older church members who remember the fire believe it was a miracle that the most important part of the window survived.

Today, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church still proudly displays the window honoring Jackson. This Wednesday — May 10 — will mark the 100th anniversary of the window’s installation. The window, honoring one of the South’s best-known heroes, reminds us that Jackson, though himself a slave owner, saw no contradiction in bringing the Gospel of Christ to the black race.

The pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, Bill Reinhold, said in a June 19, 2005, sermon, "Thomas Jackson, like Jesus, was willing to cross real boundaries for the sake of the Gospel."

Jackson’s efforts to elevate the black man through religion, literacy and opportunity, though seemingly patronizing by today’s standards, were progressive for the times in which he lived. They were not progressive in a political sense; they transcended the political.

Downing’s actions also transcended the political. Mr. Reinhold noted that the Rev. Lylburn Downing, "like the Samaritan woman at the well, was willing to recognize the truth of what he had been taught through the work of someone who did not share his own background — but who had affirmed the dignity and worth of his parents. This pastor grew up hearing of how Deacon Jackson’s faith had compelled him to share it with others, and in his own turn Reverend Downing became an evangelist of the true worship of God."

Though Mr. Reinhold believes that Jackson fought "at least in part to keep alive an oppressive system," he acknowledges that the Confederate general also took great personal risk to "teach black children to read when it was both unpopular and illegal to do so."

The words of the Rev. Vernie Bolden, who pastored Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in the early 1990s and is himself the grandson of a slave, give the best perspective on the window: "It represents an ideal of what could be and what should be, instead of the reality of what is."

What could be and what should be — Stonewall Jackson and the Rev. Downing would agree.

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