The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

How a statement by Lexington City Council’s lone Black woman informs council decisions

Mayor Friedman’s perception of Lexington changed after Alexander shared what living as a Black woman in town during Jim Crow laws was like
Catherine McKean
Lexington City Council members voted unanimously to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery after Alexander’s speech. Photo by Catherine McKean, ’24

Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman, who grew up in Lexington and became mayor in 2016, said he believed he knew everything about the quaint little town.

But that changed in 2020 when Lexington, like nearly every city and town across the country, dealt with the public’s outrage over the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

At a July 2 meeting that year, Vice Mayor Marylin Alexander, then the only Black member of the council, made an emotional statement that challenged everything Friedman thought he knew about Lexington.

That powerful statement still informs how Lexington’s primarily white City Council makes decisions.

Alexander, who was a member of the first integrated class at Lexington High School, recalled during the meeting what it was like to grow up in a town she said has strong Confederate roots.

“I grew up here during the Jim Crow era, and it seems like the only history of Lexington that I knew was of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee,” Alexander said. “Imagine being Black and growing up surrounded by a confusing history of white men hailed as heroes, but they enslaved my ancestors.”

She also told the council about her experiences living in Lexington as a Black adult. In the late 1980s, she said, she was house hunting in town when a white man aggressively followed her.

“There was a man with an angry look on his face who ran out of his house, jumped in his car behind us, and tailed us all the way through that neighborhood, and all the way through downtown,” she said. “I was startled.”

Alexander said that while she and the man never spoke, his message that she was not welcome there because of her race was “loud and clear.”

The vice mayor told the white members of council that Confederate symbols and signage explicitly diminish the brutality of enslavement by romanticizing the people who fought a war to keep it.

“That meant to me that Lexingtonians must have revered slavery,” she said. “Therefore, in their eyes, I must be a second-class or third-class citizen.”

Alexander’s experiences became relevant during the July 2 meeting when the council was deciding whether to change the name of the city’s Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery on South Main Street.

Alexander and Lexington’s five white council members voted unanimously to drop Jackson’s name from the cemetery, according to the minutes. The cemetery has since been renamed to Oak Grove Cemetery.

The YouTube video of the meeting, which lasted five hours, remains the council’s most viewed session. And Alexander’s comments have forever changed Friedman’s perspective, he said.

Lexington’s six council members possess all the legislative authority, meaning that the title of “mayor” is typically a ceremonial position. The mayor doesn’t even get to vote in decisions unless there’s a tie.

But Friedman said Alexander’s statement helped him understand how he can use his influence to uplift the Black community.

“Marylin is usually quiet, and when she speaks, it is important to listen,” he said in an interview. “It reinforced my intentions to seek insight and not judge.”

Now, Lexington City Council has a second Black member, Washington and Lee law graduate Nicholas Betts. The mostly-white city council has also started renaming streets. New Market Place, named after the Battle of New Market in the Civil War, became Evergreen Place in 2021.

Friedman said he hasn’t forgotten Alexander’s words.

“Marylin gave us all a gift of seeing the world through her eyes, ears, and heart,” he said. “Despite us both being raised in Lexington, her statement provided a perspective I could not find from my experiences.”

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  • L

    Larry RhodenizerDec 16, 2023 at 9:27 am

    Yes change of street names is needed.

  • J

    John BDec 12, 2023 at 10:02 pm

    Perspective is good, but don’t run around changing history. Embrace it,
    Learn from itso you or no one else is ever allowed to repeat it. The Nazis were good at erasing history and then brainwashing their Citizens to believe a while different history.

  • D

    DawsonDec 12, 2023 at 8:11 am

    The Democrat’s were the party of Slavery and the Republican party was formed to free the slaves and abolish slavery. So always vote Republican!