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.
Richard G. Williams Jr. writes from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. His most recent book, “Stonewall Jackson — The Black Man’s Friend,” will be released in September by Cumberland House Publishing of Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Williams may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.