A prominent lawyer is calling for changing the name of Roanoke’s federal courthouse, which commemorates the late Richard H. Poff, a US Congressman who once supported segregation.
The building should be renamed in honor of Reuben E. Lawson, a civil rights attorney who fought for the very racial integration of schools that was opposed by Poff in the 1950s and 1960s, Roanoke attorney John Fishwick said.
“A federal courthouse is where our citizens go to vindicate their rights,” Fishwick said at a news conference Tuesday, “and it should be named after someone who reflected that principle.”
In a letter Monday to Southwest Virginia’s Congressional delegation — Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Republican Reps. Ben Cline and Morgan Griffith — Fishwick asked them to propose legislation to recognize “one of Roanoke’s undeservedly forgotten legal titans.”
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Lawson was a Black attorney who filed the region’s first desegregation lawsuit in 1960, which led to a federal judge ordering Floyd County Public Schools to admit 13 students who had been excluded from the all-white student population, the letter stated.
Similar legal challenges followed in Roanoke and Lynchburg and the counties of Grayson, Pulaski and Roanoke. Together, the cases put an end to segregation in Southwest Virginia that was still carried out in the years following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1954.
“Though quiet and soft-spoken, Mr. Lawson worked tirelessly and passionately for social justice,” the letter stated.
Although a number of public schools and other buildings named after Confederate generals have been renamed in Roanoke and elsewhere in recent years, there is apparently less precedent at the federal level for such a move, Fishwick said.
He is suggesting an act that would be passed by the Senate and House of Representatives.
The Richard H. Poff Federal Building currently houses federal courts and offices of the US Department of Veterans Affairs. It opened nearly 50 years ago, in 1975, and has borne the Poff name ever since.
While commending Poff’s service — which includes 20 years in the House of Representatives and another 17 years on the Virginia Supreme Court — Fishwick said the 6th District Congressman in 1956 signed the so-called Southern Manifesto, which maintained that states could resist the federal government’s order to integrate schools.
Poff also voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1968 and also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the letter stated.
In 1971, Poff disavowed his support for segregation, saying he felt pressure as a young congressman to sign the Southern Manifesto.
“I can only say that segregation is wrong today,” he was quoted as saying in a Roanoke Times article. “It was wrong yesterday. It was never right.” Poff died in 2011.
Lawson died in 1963, at the age of 43.
His relatively short career was overshadowed to some degree by his work with the legendary Oliver Hill, a Roanoke native who went on to practice law in Richmond and handled a high-profile civil rights case. The Roanoke City Courthouse is named after Hill.
Lawson “was a quiet and peaceful man; you didn’t hear much about him,” the Rev. Edward Burton, who is retired after preaching for 50 years at Sweet Union Baptist Church, said at Tuesday’s news conference.
“He didn’t think a whole lot about demonstrating,” Burton said, recalling that Lawson was more content to work long hours at his law office at Gilmer Avenue and Gainsboro Road.
Burton said Lawson kept a cot at his office, where he sometimes slept.
The attorney’s battle against segregation was not limited to the courtroom, Fishwick’s letter stated. He appeared before Roanoke City Council in 1961, when the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts were scheduled to play an exhibition game at the former Victory Stadium
Both teams had star players who were Black; the stadium at the time had segregated stands. The city council agreed to integrate the stadium after Lawson argued that its members were obliged to do so by the US Constitution.
Fishwick, who served as US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia from 2015 to 2017, said he “stumbled across” Lawson’s history this summer while researching civil rights cases. As he learned more, he decided to make the case that he launched this week.
“As a native and longtime resident of Roanoke, I can think of no more deserving honor than naming the Federal Building in Roanoke — the current home of the court in which Mr. Lawson valiantly fought segregationist policies — after him,” he wrote in his letter to Kanie, Warner, Cline and Griffith.
“Mr. Lawson was truly Roanoke’s own civil rights attorney, embodying not only the city, but the spirit of its diverse population.”
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