The Rev. Dr. E. T. Burton came to Roanoke in the late 1950s. “You can appreciate where you are when you look back where you have come from,” he said.
History was made at the Dumas Cultural Center Saturday. It was the first time the “Progressive Democrats of America” recognized the pioneers of civil rights and social justice in Roanoke. It won’t be the last.
“Now we have made it from the back seat of the bus all the way to the steering wheel,” said Rev. Burton. He called on today’s youth to understand where they used to sit.
Rev. Burton made a confession to the crowd of over 100 Saturday. He explained how he was a janitor for Sears Roebuck many years ago saying “that was the only job you could get if you were a person of color back in those days.” When cleaning the colored rest-rooms as a janitor he confessed that he really cleaned them well. Grinning broadly he said, “however the white rest rooms only got ‘a lick and a promise’.”
The retired pastor’s punch-line was that if “you wanted to go in the cleanest rest room you knew which one to go to in the days of segregated bathrooms . . . ” A true story the assembled crowd could laugh about today.
It wasn’t always a laughing matter. Rev. Burton, a pastor at Sweet Union Baptist Church for 50 years, remembered fighting for equal pay for colored teachers.
In Roanoke there were no demonstrations or violence as in other cities. Rev. Burton said Roanoke saw by then that integration was inevitable. A biracial commission was formed and “a lot of negotiation went on here because the battles were fought in other places.”
The biracial commission decided that black and white Roanoke citizens would make the rounds together and eat at the lunch counters. Rev. Burton said that there were not enough black citizens that signed up.
To roars of laughter, he said that he “had to do double duty and was assigned three restaurants – I ate at all three of them.” At the end of the day he was pleased they had integration, “but I sure was miserable.”
Andrea Miller, a member of the Progressive Democrats of America National Team, handed out the awards. She represented Congressman John Conyers, Jr. and the Rev. Dr. Walter Fauntroy who were unable to attend.
The Rev. William Avon Keen, Virginia State President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the keynote speaker. Bishop Edward Mitchell SCLC Roanoke Chapter President, Brenda Hale President of the NAACP and members of city council were present.
Rev. Keen reflected on “the reality of being black.” He said, “the reality is that 92 percent of arrests in his hometown of Danville were black … and it has led us to try to rewrite the history of the civil war.”
The Lion of Social Justice Legislative Award went to Councilman Sherman Lea. “This award takes our voice and turns it into a roar,” said Miller. Lea thanked the members of council for their support in making Roanoke a better place to live.
In addition thirteen Leadership and Activism Awards were presented to: President Emeritus of the SCLC – Dr. Perneller Chubb-Wilson, retired Major Deborah Saunders, Sheila Mitchell-Patterson, Herman Carter, Rev. Dr. Carl Tinsley, A. Byron Smith, Evelyn Bethel Davis, Mary Beth Brooks, Brenda Walker, Jeff Artis, attorney John Fishwick, Alease Frazier and Mac McCadden.