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.