James Cosby

James Cosby

By James Cosby

Cosby is a retired federal trial attorney living in Roanoke

Grandmother Annie Simms Cosby was born in Richmond in 1860 and lived there throughout the Civil War. She later lived with us in the Raleigh Court section of Roanoke until I was about 15 years old. She told us grandchildren many stories about the early days. She remembered the latter days of the war including when the “Yankees burned Richmond” [it was the Confederates who set the fire burning supplies and munitions along the James River]. She also told about General Grant’s victorious march up Broad Street and life after the war which was difficult for both whites and blacks.

Great Grandfather Adam Shank (on my mother’s side) was born in Smithsburg, Maryland in 1826. Despite being over 35 years old and having eight children, he volunteered as a Union soldier during the war. He was grievously wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness (near Fredericksburg). He laid on the battlefield all night and in the morning was subjected to further injuries by cavalry horses. Discharged as an invalid, he died two years later. His wife Anna lost not only her husband but also her brother Charles McGuire, a Confederate soldier who was killed defending a bridge in Petersburg.

My father was born in the 19th century. A staunch believer of separation of the races, he still required us white children to be respectful of blacks. He also taught me how to stand up to bullies, be a Cub Scout, treat girls with respect and hunt with his 12-gauge shotgun. I loved him as a father and still revere his memory.

As a child, I never understood why N.W. Pugh, Heironimus and Miller & Rhodes department stores downtown had four restrooms and two separate water fountains to accommodate “colored” and “white.” Nor why Mother could drive us to our black maid Mary’s house in Northwest to spend the day with her children, but they could not play with us in Raleigh Court.

In my teen years, my father and I discussed our divergent views around the dinner table many evenings. Mother was the silent referee, cutting off debate if it got too vigorous. Finally, Dad and I realized neither of us would change the opinion of the other and learned to discuss other things. My father died on my second day of law school, and I lost my best male friend.

I married Noel in 1963. She was a Democrat proud to support John Kennedy on the national level. I was a Republican proud to support Linwood Holton as governor on the state level. He did more to break the back of Jim Crow and Massive Resistance than any other single person. I am still proud of that vote and of Gov. Holton. More lately I have become a great admirer of Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, African-American attorneys who dismantled Jim Crow in the courts.

In 1993, I became friends with Larry Hamlar, co-owner of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home, the pre-eminent funeral home for African-American residents in Roanoke. We were working on a project to gain support for higher education in the Roanoke Valley. While I was new to this endeavor, I learned that Larry had been working on it for 20 years. I also learned that Larry was one of the Committee of Twelve who peacefully guided Roanoke through the integration of public services in the 1960s.

I described that in an Op-Ed tribute to Larry after he died in 2004:

This ad hoc Committee of six black and six white citizens formed to promote the peaceful immigration of public facilities in Roanoke. As Larry described it to me, the owners were quite willing to integrate, they just did not want to go first. With all agreeing to the same schedule, public facilities in Roanoke were integrated quietly and without violence. Credit that to Larry Hamlar and 11 other apostles of peace and justice.

My life has been one of complexities. Grandmother Annie lived through the Civil War and described it to us children. Great-grandfather Adam was a Union soldier grievously wounded in the same war. Great-great uncle Charles McGuire lost his life defending the “Lost Cause.”

I am one of very few people alive who lived with a person who had lived in a war zone throughout the Civil War and told stories about it. That’s a stretch of 155+ years in two generations. By that measure of time, slavery and the Civil War are recent history.

Our challenge today is similar to that faced by Larry Hamlar and the Committee of 12. In racial relations, it’s to be apostles of peace and justice.

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