My Family’s Connection to the Confederate Monument Controversy

This past Sunday, CBS Sunday Morning did a program on the confederate monument controversy. One of the featured stories was on a Stonewall Jackson memorial stained glass window at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

These days, when we hear about confederate memorial controversies we expect the ensuing confrontation to line up along America’s calcified racial and political fault lines. We expect to see images of “red state” whites protesting the removal of the statues, which to them represent an attempt to erase history. On the other side are “blue state” protesters, both black and white, voicing support for the removal of the statues, which to them represent offensive symbols of white supremacy.

What sets the Fifth Avenue controversy uniquely apart is that blacks stood on both sides of this fault line. Fifth Avenue is a historically African American church located in Roanoke, VA. The churches black founding pastor, The Rev. Lylburn Liggins Downing, installed the memorial window to Jackson and it has been a part of the church’s history for the last 110 years. My family connection to this controversy is that my grandfather, the Rev. Curtis Andre Kearns Sr., was a longtime Senior Pastor at Fifth Avenue. He stood on the fault line for many years.

Stonewall Jackson, Sunday School Teacher, Slave owner and Confederate Commander

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is the best-known Confederate commander in American Civil War history not named Robert E Lee. His quintessentially American rags to riches story fueled his legend as a leader of the “Lost Cause”. He was born in 1824 in Clarksburg, VA (now West Virginia). He grew up fatherless, impoverished, and with little formal education, but would go on to graduate from West Point in 1846 and serve in the Mexican American War. After the war, he accepted a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA. It is also important to note that Jackson was a slave owner, which sets up this next paradox. In 1855, he organized and started teaching Sunday school classes for enslaved blacks at the Lexington Presbyterian Church where he was a member and where he served as deacon. Jackson convinced his wife to teach the class with him, as “he preferred that [her] labors should be given to the colored children, believing that it was more important and useful to put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race, to lift them up.” Jackson would go on to join the Confederate Army in 1861 to fight for southern secession and to maintain slavery. He died of complications from pneumonia on May 10, 1863, eight days after being shot in battle.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824–1863)

Jackson’s memorial window at Fifth Avenue Church

The Rev. Lylburn Liggins Downing grew up hearing stories about his enslaved parents Lylburn and Ellen Downing attending the Sunday school classes that Stonewall Jackson held for black worshippers of Lexington Presbyterian Church. According to Downing, Jackson had taught his parents how to read and write and instructed them in the ways of the Presbyterian Church. While attending Seminary in the 1890s at the historically black Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, Downing read a biography on Jackson and his admiration for him grew. Downing went on to found the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke in 1895 for African- Americans to worship. By 1906, he raised enough money to install a stained glass window at Fifth Avenue in Jackson’s memory. Engraved in the bottom of the window were Jackson’s name along with his purported dying words, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church stained glass window in memorial to Stonewall Jackson
The Rev Lylburn Liggins Downing (1862–1937), founder of black Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. His parents were born enslaved and had learned to read and write in Stonewall Jackson’s “Colored Sunday School” classes at Lexington Presbyterian Church.
Rev. Lylburn Liggins Downing and his 3 sons. Photo source: David A. Blount Jr.

The Rev. Curtis A Kearns Sr.

My family also has deep roots in the American south and in the Presbyterian Church. My grandfather, the Rev. Curtis Andre Kearns Sr. was born in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina in 1916 and in his lifetime would go on to pastor churches in Durham, Raleigh, Roanoke and Baltimore, before retiring back to Charlotte.

His path to the ministry had been born in slavery and paved by his ancestors. Three of his four grandparents had lived enslaved in Long Creek Township (now Huntersville), Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. His grandfathers, James Augustus “Gus” Kerns and Hamilton “Pleasant Ham” Harvell, both born in to slavery, were core members of the Miranda Presbyterian Church, formed under a Carolina pine in 1869 by black members of the white Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Huntersville.

My great great grandfathers James Augustus “Gus” Kerns (1861–1939)-and Hamilton “Pleasant Ham” Harvell (1856–1928) both born enslaved and who lived in Long Creek Township, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

His father, Andrew Kerns, born in 1893, spent his childhood as a farm laborer in Huntersville. Andrew quickly grew to hate the farming life and would “pray every day for God to show him another way”. As an adult, he moved his young family to the city of Charlotte to improve his children’s chances of receiving high school educations. Not only did my grandfather finish high school, but he also worked his way through Johnson C Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He finished Seminary at Smith in 1942.

My great grandfather Andrew Kerns (1893–1960)
My grandfather the Rev. Curtis Andre Kearns Sr. upon his graduation from Johnson C Smith University.

The Jackson Window and the Altar Screen

My grandfather served as Senior Pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in Roanoke from 1955 to 1970. The church burned down from a lightning strike in 1959. The Jackson stained glass window was the only item salvaged from the wreckage that the church membership wanted to retain for the new church. My grandfather was against this and fully rejected the idea that teaching Christianity to enslaved people while fighting to keep them enslaved qualified Jackson for any form of praise. However, the window represented a valuable source of church income from white citizens of Roanoke who were eager to maintain the Jackson memorial at this historically African-American church. Additionally many church members saw preserving the window as a way to honor Downing’s legacy as the church founder. My grandfather’s position on the window in particular placed him at odds with Downings children, who were the churches most prominent members, and one of whom was a Howard University trained doctor who had delivered the majority of black children in Roanoke, VA. So the window was installed behind the pulpit of the re-built church, but during his tenure at the church, my grandfather always covered Jackson’s name and the dedication etched on the bottom of the window with an altar screen.

My grandfather, the Rev. Curtis A Kearns Sr., was a longtime senior pastor at Fifth Avenue. He fully rejected the idea that teaching Christianity to enslaved people while fighting to keep them enslaved qualified Jackson for any form of praise. So during his tenure at the church he covered the dedication etched on the bottom of the window with an alter screen. Here’s a photo of my grandfather and father standing in front of the memorial stained glass window…and altar screen.

Confederate Memorials

If there is anything that I take away from this family story, it is that the issue of confederate memorials in this country is quite a complicated one. Ultimately, for churches like Fifth Avenue, it is up to them, taking into account their histories, their membership and the broader communities that they serve, to determine the best way to treat these monuments.

Government displays of Confederate monuments and symbols however are another matter altogether. According to a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center study, there are at least 1,500 government supported Confederate monuments and statues in public spaces across the country, mostly in the Deep South. The recent events in Charlottesville, VA have motivated a number of cities across the country to announce plans to remove these Confederate statues. I applaud these efforts.

As the descendant of enslaved people, the lives and struggles of whom I study through my genealogical pursuits, I find confederate monuments in public spaces offensive. Confederate memorials depict people who fought to maintain a system of American terrorism, in the form of slavery, which savagely affected the lives of my ancestors and the ancestors of millions of African Americans in this country.

I believe that America should remove all honorific symbols of the confederacy from taxpayer funded public spaces. If we move them to museums, then they should be presented within their full and proper historical context. I do not believe that we should maintain these monuments to honor fallen confederate commanders because they died for the cause of southern secession and to maintain slavery. I also do not accept the argument that removing the statues somehow erases history. Segregationists designed many of these statues in the early days of Jim Crow to intimidate its black population, resist integration and romanticize the “lost cause”. So as many of them stand, they actually represent a distortion of our history.

Let our schools continue to teach our children about the Civil War. Let our universities continue to lead scholarly research on it. Let our museums continue to exhibit and share stories on it. We do not need to stand in the shadow of a Stonewall Jackson or Robert E Lee statue to remember our complicated history as a country. Let us agree to eliminate these divisive symbols from our public squares and commit to remembering and learning from our shared history to the benefit of future generations. Let’s close the divide together.