A historical marker that tells the story of African revolutionary John Chilembwe will be erected in Lynchburg this fall, thanks in great part to the efforts of a University of Lynchburg professor and one of her students.
Dr. Lindsay Michie, who teaches in Lynchburg’s history and Africana studies programs, and history major Christine Moore ’20 researched and applied for the historical marker. It was approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources in June.
The marker will tell the story of Chilembwe, who came to the U.S. from Nyasaland — now Malawi — in the late 1800s. Once in Lynchburg, he studied at Virginia Seminary, a historically Black institution now known as Virginia University of Lynchburg.
Chilembwe later returned to his homeland, where he fought and died for African independence from British Colonial rule. John Chilembwe Day is celebrated in Malawi on January 15.
“I learned about John Chilembwe from researching and teaching African history and knew that like many African revolutionaries in the 20th century, he had been educated in the United States,” Michie said. “But it wasn’t until I moved to Lynchburg about 10 years ago that I paid attention to his specific connection to this region.”
Michie subsequently traveled to Malawi and has written about Chilembwe for the Society of Malawi’s historical journal. She has also given talks about Chilembwe at conferences in Virginia, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.
Over the years, there had been talk around Lynchburg of having a Chilembwe marker erected. People at VUL and the Lynchburg Museum System showed interest. So did Shaun Spencer Hester, whose grandmother, Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer of Lynchburg, was a classmate of Chilembwe’s.
There was plenty of enthusiasm, but funding was an obstacle — albeit a temporary one. “I saw the opportunity for the Schewel Student-Faculty Endowed Research grant [and] that seemed to be one way to get it off the ground,” Michie said. “And then Dr. Adam Dean stepped in with an offer of more funding from the John M. Turner Endowment in the Humanities, and that really galvanized the project.”
Michie also involved one of her students, Moore, in the effort. “Christine was a natural choice for me in applying for the student-faculty research grant,” Michie said. “She was in my South African History class and a student worker in our department.
“We’d had many conversations about African history before I asked her if she would be interested in tackling this project with me. We started working on the grant application [in spring 2019] and then the marker application in the fall.”
Moore did her own research on the project and was instrumental when it came time to boil Chilembwe’s life down into 100 words, a requirement for the marker and one of the most difficult parts of the project, according to Michie.
“That took a while, but I think we made a good team,” Michie said. “Being a professor, I can get pretty wordy, whereas Christine is of the younger generation that knows how to abbreviate.”
The marker, which will be erected on VUL’s campus, will read as follows:
John Chilembwe was the leader, in 1915, of the first major African uprising against colonial authorities in the British Protectorate of Nyasaland (Malawi). Chilembwe had come to Lynchburg in 1897 to study at Virginia Seminary under its president, Gregory Hayes. He returned to Africa by 1900 and set up Providence Industrial Mission before launching the revolt of 1915. A military patrol shot and killed Chilembwe on 3 Feb. 1915. The British Official Commission asserted that a main cause of the revolt had been Chilembwe’s education in the United States. Malawi, where Chilembwe remains a symbol of liberation, became independent in 1964. John Chilembwe Day is celebrated annually on 15 Jan.