The old stained glass window has graced Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia since 1906. The first pastor, Rev. Lylburn Liggins had insisted that it be put there. There had been some opposition to a window honoring a white man in a black church, but the preacher held firm.
Rev. Liggins was a remarkable man. Born a slave, he had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and studied at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to prepare for the ministry. He had been a bright student, earning some tuition money by teaching Latin on the side. On graduation day he could have stayed right where he was. He had already been offered a faculty position at his alma mater.
But he had other plans, plans he believed were from God. As a boy in Sunday School he had felt a calling to preach the gospel and pastor a church. So, respectfully declining the offer he moved back to his native Virginia and took up his labors in a seven-member mission work which would one day grow into the respected Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
As a child he had attended a “colored” Sunday School in Lexington, Virginia. There he had had lessons in reading and writing and more importantly, the Word of God. A kindly white man named John Preston was the teacher. The Sunday School was a family tradition for Liggins; his parents had been converted to Christ under the ministry of Preston’s predecessor, who had been his brother-in-law and a most remarkable man.
That earlier teacher had been a college professor. A man of modest means, he owned a few slaves and was known for his kindly affection for them. He supported the Sunday School for both slaves and free blacks with his own money and invested his limited spare time to teach them. When the Civil War broke out and he served in the Confederate army, his letters home said little about his adventures on the battlefield but always inquired anxiously about the progress of his students.
This man had risked both legal trouble and social stigma to teach his black pupils. Because of inflammatory literature sent southward by radical abolitionists, literacy among blacks was feared. It was illegal to teach them to read for fear the propaganda might incite them to rebellion and murder. But this noble man considered that they must be literate in order to understand God’s Word. So he taught them to read—among other things.
When he left his Lexington home to fight for Virginia, the teacher did so for the last time. He would lay down his life for the principle of states’ rights. But his memory would live on, both in the hearts of his white family and friends and the hearts of his beloved Sunday School students. Including the mother and father of Reverend Lylburn Liggins.
So much did Liggins revere the memory of this man whom he credited with his family’s Christian heritage that it was his lifelong dream to honor him with a stained glass window. So when Fifth Presbyterian was able to build a new building in 1906, the pastor went to work raising money for the window.
There was some resistance to honoring a white Confederate soldier in a black church, but Liggins’ reputation overcame it. The community knew him for a man of sincerity and a servant’s heart. He maintained a Sunday School of his own in hopes of influencing a whole generation of black children as the Teacher had influenced his parents. He was also active in Roanoke’s civic life. He was Roanoke’s first probation officer as well as the first black member of the city’s Republican Party Committee. When he died in 1937 he was still faithfully shepherding his church. And the stained glass window he loved had been a fixture for three decades.
It’s still there today, a testament to the power of the gospel in breaking down racial barriers. It’s also one of many memorials to the life of the Teacher. The Professor. The General. The man whom Reverend Liggins loved for the sake of his parents’ salvation.
The mighty Stonewall Jackson.