Descendants of Joe Burns were among those gathered to unveil a state historical marker near the site of his 1886 lynching near Martinsburg.
Editor’s note from the October 2022 print issue
Evangelist Jessie Ambush, Assistant Pastor at New Beginning Apostolic Church in Martinsburg, recalls a childhood memory of driving past the Hartwood Mansion south of the city and telling her mother “that would be a beautiful place to live.” It wasn’t until Ambush was in her 30s that her mother shared the story of her great-great uncle Joe Burns, who had been lynched nearby. As she spoke after the unveiling of the new historical marker (above), Ambush remarked on the need to tell “his story over and over, so that an honest remedy and repair may someday be a reality.”
Sometimes history lessons come from buried artifacts or a preserved battle ground. Or they come from resurrecting a long-neglected building. Sometimes we think of history in terms of ghosts, whether they haunt our basements or our minds. Ambush herself had a haunting story to share when we spoke after the the veiling ceremony. As I asked her about growing up in Darkesville (in Berkeley County), she recounted her most vivid memory — as a 10 year old child in the late 1960s — looking out across the street to her grandmother’s front yard and seeing a burning cross in the middle of the night.
When what we might think of as history is still present in the minds of the living, the need for an emphatic rejection of groups that seek to instigate race-based fear and political violence seems to be self-evident — so that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are secured as rights of our common future, not just hollow words left behind, buried by the burden of a hidden past.Steve Pearson