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Students at Emory & Henry uncover names of enslaved Black workers who helped build the college

One of the readers in the video
courtesy photo
One of the readers in the video

When Emory and Henry College was built in the 1800s, enslaved Black laborers did much of the work. Now, students at the college are working to memorialize and uncover the names of these workers.

Like most institutions in the south that were founded before the Civil War, Emory & Henry’s early years were intertwined with the slave industry. This history has been largely ignored, until recently.

Students spent several years documenting the names of these workers. They delved into the college’s archives to find them.

“And to hear that their names were mixed in with things like eggs and butter and they were just shunned away,” said Lorelae Thomas, one of hundreds of Emory & Henry students who attended a screening this fall to watch a 14 minute film, memorializing hundreds of enslaved and freed Black workers, who were at the college from 1836-1865.

“I think it was very emotional and it makes me think, what else do I not know about my home,” said Thomas, who grew up in Bristol. She said this project has made her wonder, who were the enslaved workers from her community? What were their names?

24 Emory & Henry students worked to help produce the Remembrance video, including senior Mills Becouvarakis

“It’s just cool to see the whole school react to the work that we did,” Becouvarakis said.

They screened the film and hosted a public discussion with community members from the area, including Mary Lampkins.

“It made me feel a little sad to know that these people went through that,” Lampkins said. She also played a role in making the video. She read names of enslaved workers.

“And it just makes me feel proud to know that I descend most likely from those people,” Lampkins said. She received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Emory & Henry, and taught in public school for 32 years.

“And I just like to think that, like Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise,’ that, you know, I’m the hope and the dream of the slave. Like they may not have voiced it, but they probably had hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren,” Lampkins said.

Student Khadeem Lewis was in the audience when Lampkins and her family spoke.

“As a Black male, seeing how the other Black people on stage were feeling about the situation, how things happened, to compared to now, how they love the area, how they love the way they’re treated. They just love this place in general, I kind of felt the same way. Not kind of, I did feel the same way now,” Lewis said.

Lewis is from Richmond, and said many of his friends back home have stereotypes about southwest Virginia, because it’s rural, and in the mountains. He said he’s glad to see Emory & Henry acknowledging its past, and says he plans to show this video to his friends.

“I would tell them how more comfortable I am and how if you watch this video, you would have the same understanding of place at Emory and Henry that I have,” Lewis said.

Student Grace Campbell said she hopes to see more of the college’s history being told. “This is a great first step. I don’t think that we should be finished in any way shape or form,” Campbell said. “Seeing it continue would be fantastic I think.”

The Remembrance video was produced as part of The Watershed Project, an ongoing effort at the college to uncover stories of southwest Virginia.

Emory & Henry’s President John Wells said he’s proud of the work the students have done.

“We’re asking them not just to take a simple view of it, but to understand the complex social system that was really involved here,” Wells said. “And to begin to ask deep moral questions about that time period.”

He said it’s important for institutions to be informed by their past. Even when the past reveals things we don’t agree with.

“That doesn’t define us forever,” Wells said. He added that he hopes this project can continue creating discussions around how to build a future with more human dignity, equality and community.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.
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