ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) –There’s a dark history in Roanoke now seeing the light of day.
“I think a lot of people, first of all, don’t know the story,” says Bill Bestpitch, member of the Roanoke Coalition of the Equal Justice Initiative.
It’s the story of Thomas Smith.
The Roanoke times. [volume] (Roanoke, Va.), 21 Sept. 1893. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Image provided by: Library of Virginia; Richmond, VA
Unjustly killed, murdered, lynched. It is horrific what they did,”said the Chair of the Roanoke Coalition of the Equal Justice Initiative Dr. Brenda Hale.
Smith’s death and the events surrounding it made headlines in the 1890s.
“There was a mindset that any darky, any black man, that did anything to a white child or woman, they’re gonna get killed. they’re gonna get killed,” said Dr. Hale. “They felt like they had to be the judge jury and executioner.”
Smith, a Black man, was accused of beating and robbing a white woman on Sept. 20, 1893. She couldn’t positively identify Smith as the suspect, but it didn’t stop a mob of reportedly four thousand people from surrounding the jail demanding revenge.
“When you have a mob mentality, nobody can stop it,” explains Dr. Hale.
It was reported the mayor called for the Roanoke Light Infantry to protect the prisoner but the mob turned into a riot.
Nine people died in that riot, and many were injured. But by the early hours of Sept. 21, the mob won.
It’s the mob that took him and lynched him and it was the mob that took his body down after they had riddled it with bullets and down to the river and then burned him,”said Dr. Hale.
“The worst part of the story is that a few years later they actually realized that they had the wrong person,” said Bestpitch.
Now, 130 years later Smith’s lynching will live on through a historical marker posted on the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue, the exact spot he was lynched.
“We’re doing this for the community cause we want to make a community better,” exclaims Dr. Hale.
Dr. Hale and Bestpitch started the journey to get the marker three years ago. They wanted Smith’s story to be remembered.
It’s also important in terms of how those things that happened back in those days continue to affect where we are today in terms of race relations and understanding each other,”said Bestpitch.
However, The National Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project Coalition based would need to give its approval for Roanoke to get its marker.
After dozens of local people joined to research the events surrounding Smith’s death, they submitted a request to join the Remembrance Project in Montgomery, Alabama.
“We heard back from them within 60 minutes,” recalls Dr. Hale. “They were that impressed with what we were doing here in Roanoke.”
Now, not only is there the historical marker in Roanoke but soil from spots where Smith was lynched and burned by the river is on display at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.
The historical marker will serve as a reminder to the community that, “we have to face the reality that it did it did happen and hopefully no more lynchings will take place here in Roanoke, we have to learn from that,” explains Dr. Hale. “Also, we have to learn we must work with the police with the sheriff’s department so we have to work with everybody so we can save some lives.
Both Dr. Hale and Bestpitch agree lynchings are happening to Black men, women, and children today, we just don’t call it that.
It’s proof they say, even centuries later the fight for equality isn’t over.
We’ve taken a very important step in the right direction and we still have a lot more steps to go,”said Bestpitch.
Smith is one of two Black men lynched in Roanoke.
The coalition is now researching the lynching of the other man, William Lavender. It also hopes to get approval for a historical marker in the spot where he died.