Lynchburg Remembers John Chilembwe

Embassy of the Republic of Malawi in the United States , Thu, Nov 19, 2020

Earlier in August 2020, the Embassy received news of a successful endeavor approving a marker in the City of Lynchburg, the Commonwealth of Virginia to commemorate Malawi’s Baptist and politician Rev John Chilembwe. His Excellency Ambassador Edward Sawerengera attended the Unveiling Ceremony of the Marker, which was held on Saturday, November 14th, 2020 at the Virginia University of Lynchburg.

The event drew several attendees including Lynchburg Mayor Mary Jane Dolan, University of Lynchburg President Alison Morrison- Shetlar, Chair of the Virginia University of Lynchburg, Dr. James Coleman, Associate Professor of History at the University of Lynchburg, Dr. Lindsay Michie and city and school officials among others.

Rev. John Chilembwe was the first African student to attend the Virginia University of Lynchburg. During his time in Lynchburg, he was under the care of then- President Gregory Hayes, who was at the time battling to take control of the University from white authorities and place it in the hands of black leaders, and he succeeded to do that. The research and application for the historical Marker was initiated by Dr. Lindsay Michie, Associate Professor of History at the University of Lynchburg who teaches history and African studies program and Ms. Christine Moore a graduate student from the University. The Marker was funded by the University of Lynchburg Schewel Student Faculty Grant and the University of Lynchburg John M. Turner distinguished Chair in the Humanities Fund.

The text approving the Marker from the Department of Historic Resources states that “John Chilembwe was the leader in 1915 of the first major African uprising against colonial authorities in the British Protectorate of Nyasaland (Malawi).” It goes on to state that “Chilembwe went to Lynchburg in 1897 to study at Virginia Seminary under its president Gregory Hayes. He returned to Africa in 1900 to set up Providence Industrial Mission before launching the revolt in 1915”.
Legend has it that Chilembwe died on 3rd February 1915 along the borders of Malawi and Mozambique from gunshot wounds inflicted by British military patrol. The British Official Commission asserted that a main cause of the revolt had been Chilembwe’s education in the United States. An article on the Britannica, asserts that Chilembwe wanted to learn the best from white people and instill discipline and pride in the Nyasa people.

At the unveiling ceremony, Ambassador Sawerengera, expressed his sincere gratitude to have been apart such an auspicious occasion and thanked the Virginia Board of Historic Resources in approving the request of the marker recognizing Chilembwe’s outstanding contributions and bravery in fighting for Malawi’s freedom from the British colonial rule.
“This is no mere achievement for a man who lived over 100 years ago”, he said in his remarks and went on to highlight what the revolt means to Malawians and why it is important to the people of Malawi stating that Chilembwe set a precedence to the role of the church in Malawian politics among many others. The Ambassador also recognized the United States of America as the most important partner in Malawi’s efforts in improving governance and socio-economic development, which goes back to people like Joseph Booth going to Malawi and bringing John Chilembwe to the USA, so he could learn the systems and impart the knowledge to fellow Malawians.

The Unveiling of the Marker was followed by dance performances from the Kuumba Dance Ensemble and a socially distanced reception at the gardens of the Anne Spencer House, wife of Charles Edward Spencer whom were friends and schoolmates of Chilembwe at the University, located a few minutes from the Virginia University of Lynchburg where the Marker was being unveiled.

This is a great honour to the Malawi nation where January 15th was declared a public holiday and is known as Chilembwe Day. On this day, a plot of the uprising is played on the national airwaves where Aida, Chilembwe’s wife, appears to have been an important figure in his life. This site by BlackPast, gives a good summary on the life of John Chilembwe.

It is said that Chilembwe foretold that someone would come to pick up from where he stopped. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda could be that person. He managed to end colonial rule in 1964 and he ruled the nation for 30 years.

The sixth president of the Republic Malawi, Dr Lazarus Chakwera is a reminiscent of John Chilembwe. They both led churches and became politicians.

The Embassy presents its gratitude to University of Lynchburg for remembering an invaluable son of Malawi and Africa as whole.