The Ballad of Thomas Smith

Can you feel the memory of this place?
Or does the weight of time erase
Blood from the root, leaving only fear?
Do you know what happened here?

In 1893 they hung me from a hickory tree;
Still hungry, they tore its branches free
And cut my clothes for souvenirs
Like something great had happened here.

What they say I did – does it matter?
Given tribe or truth, would you choose the latter?
All that mattered was that someone pay
The debt that bore their sin away.

Mrs. Bishop was selling grapes,
She led him down the cellar steps…
Man stole two dollars and beat her flat,
A black man, she said, in a slouch hat.

Willie was at the wrong place in the wrong shoes;
They got him at the wrong time, rubber boots…
Oh, don’t think I didn’t pray
That I had left my hat that day!

They got me at the train station…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman.
They had someone else too;
He even confessed, but I never knew…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman…

They made him swear to leave town
Then let him go;
They had me, and I would do…
“Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman!”

Shouting at the courthouse, gunfire at the jail,
Rough hands pushing me down, bidding me be still…
Would they risk their lives for me now, a negro?
Would they fight and die for me now, a negro?

Eight fell that night, by the Light Infantry,
Eight died that night, but not for me;
Eight men down, but they weren’t done,
They mourned for eight, but I wasn’t one.

Law washed its hands of me then – not proud,
They handed me over to the crowd…
At last, they tied me to the tree…
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

As a child I held my mama’s hand
As salt tears watered the scarred-up land;
She said, “Son, now we’s gon’ be free…”
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

They set me free on Franklin and Mountain…
Bullets biting from every direction…
Mama, why could they not let me be?
Lord… have… mercy…

It’s over now, Mama.
Into His hands I commend my spirit.

And then when they had cut from me
Every last piece that they could gut from me,
They built a pyre for me down on the river bank;
They lit a fire for me down by the river bank.

The blaze left only a few charred bones,
Smooth and polished as river stones…
My sister saw me burn that day;
She heard them sing, then turn away.

Days passed and no one could recall
The wind that blew in early fall
That made them whoop and shout for blood,
That made them throw me on the wood.

Now people pass, but do they hear?
Does my singing reach their ears?
God sent His mercy down on me,
But nothing ever grew from that hickory tree.

Historical Note: This poem is based on actual events. Thomas Smith was lynched in Roanoke in the early morning hours of September 21, 1893. The previous morning, a Mrs. Bishop of nearby Cloverdale had been beaten and robbed near the downtown farmer’s market. She identified Smith as her assailant on the basis of his race and his “slouch hat.” That night, Roanoke mayor Henry Trout called up the Light Infantry to protect Smith from the lynch mob that had gathered at the jail. When the mob tried to storm the jail, the Light Infantry fired into the crowd, killing eight bystanders.

The mob eventually overtook Smith as he was being returned to the jail later that night. They hanged him from a hickory tree on the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue and shot him numerous times. A man cut souvenirs from the tree and Smith’s clothes, handing them out to the crowd. Many in the mob wanted to bury Smith’s body in the mayor’s front yard, but they were persuaded instead to burn him on the banks of the Roanoke River.

This tragedy was not Roanoke’s first lynching. A little over a year earlier, on February 12, 1892, William Lavender was lynched after twelve-year-old Alice Perry accused him of trying to rape her. He was identified on the basis of his rubber boots.

  1. “Boss I didn’t hurt that woman.” – Thomas Smith’s words from his arrest at the train station.
  2. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.” – Thomas Smith’s last words as he was being lynched.
Works Cited:
Alexander, Ann Field. “‘Like an Evil Wind’: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 100, no. 2, 1992, pp. 173–206. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.


Ammonites and trilobites
embedded in this rocky frame
tell the story of a journey
from obscurity to fame.

As we step this mortal pathway,
knowing not which way to go,
birds still spiral up to heaven,
with the valley spread below.

Once a million creatures swimming,
then upon an ocean floor,
trilobites and ammonites
advance amongst us nevermore.

But within their black impressions,
pushed upon this mountain wall,
do their ripples, curves, and ridges
join them to us, one and all?

Within each cell, a signature
evincing power to quash the dark;
every insect, plant, and creature
bears within the maker’s mark.

An Eager Hostess, Awaiting Spring

In Virginia, spring can feel
like a fickle friend,
whose arrival is always being delayed
for reasons you suspect are not
as urgent or inexorable
as her letters make them seem.

You forgive the aggravation,
thinking ahead, surely,
to the good times close at hand;
in your mind, she approaches — finally!
in a whirl of bohemian elegance,
dropping half-told stories and future plans
onto your expectant plate.
You let the crumbs and baggage fall
to the polished floorboards —
to be cleared away at some later date —
then rush off into the evening,
bright as the stars,
and full of promise.

Winter is that uninvited relative who
keeps circling back,
presuming upon your continued hospitality;
you offer it dutifully (if lacking in enthusiasm),
but your freeloading guest
seems not to mind, so long as he has
a captive audience
to hear his timeworn tales
as the minutes trickle by.

Finally, your patience wearing thin,
the guise of civility begins to drop:
you let your eyes wander
and a long, slow yawn escape your lips —
“My, how late the hour!”
“Is it really? I suppose…”
“I’ll get your hat…”
“If you insist…”
A little dance of elation as
you watch the front door close,
determined not to answer
should his knock come once again —
You have gone to bed!
But really dreaming, still, awaiting
your capricious, fickle friend.

The Poet at Sunrise

The poet emerges at sunrise:
alone, as always, and without plan;
when else can he perceive the way
the lark’s sudden departure sends
a crown of halos rippling toward the bank?
His words cast common objects
in an unfamiliar light,
finding sacredness in the profane
and humor even in darkness.
“Yes,” we say,
“it is just like that, isn’t it?
We humans are a funny lot,
and much the same.”

Daylight belongs to the merchants,
the farmers, the tradesmen:
practical men with calloused hands,
theirs is not a life of glamour, but
they keep the world humming along
in good time and good taste
(that is, until the politicians –
who rush forward in late afternoon –
insist to show them all a better way);
busy, busy, is the day –
too busy for an unhurried thought
or unsuspected flash of genius,
too bright its rays.

The philosopher emerges at twilight
to remind the world what it has lost.
“Now we long for the return
of what we once despised…”
His warning is spoken too late, but
he writes the epitaph of the epoch,
understanding in hindsight
what was happening all along.
“We thought ourselves too clever,
building castles out of sand…
Ah! Alack! And what remains?”

The artist appears in the moonlight,
untroubled by the fall of empires;
somehow he knows humanity will survive
this latest apocalypse.
The passing era has left at his disposal
more than enough fragments:
shards of marble and of clay
to be sifted through and studied
till he can fashion a new way:
“Bold! Revolutionary! Daring!” they exclaim,
as skepticism fades to praise.

The poet emerges at sunrise…

A Tree in Winter

Winter has come to this place
and I to it am bound, finding not
one last brilliant leaf believing
it would never grace the ground.
Traversing a cold so still, the only sound
our trampling, in clumsy sacrilege,
shriveled foliage that just weeks ago
filtered autumn light
like glass stained by the master’s hand,
now crunching to dust under our boots.

The chorus of insects has departed, and
the maiden retreated to her bed –
shedding her evening finery
like so much heavy luxury,
dropping the jewels from her head.
This tree in summertime contains
a universe of life: each layer a ring,
and yet today all that remains
is scaffolding.

But old roots run deep, and soon
the sun in its course will linger once again
upon these barren branches
to coax the buds of spring.
Nature’s chorus will arise
to call the maiden from her dreams,
and out of the dust of planets
new life will emerge to build
another universe of green.

Today – A Poem


When I was a child I saw the world
through eyes that shone with every color –
of turquoise, emerald, crimson, gold,
and each rich shade of sister and brother.
But when this vision grew too bright,
I made myself a private night.
Dark shades I wore to block the day –
Today I decided to put them away.

When I was a child I heard the world
as songs the swallows sing each other,
of wisdom sought and stories told,
the private joys of passing strangers.
But when the voices of the street
brought forth demands I could not meet,
I wrapped my ears with heavy cloth –
Today I decided to cast them off.

When I was a child my hands were free
To skim the grasses as I ran –
and laughter sprang up naturally
without concern for price or plan.
But when my fate I could not know,
then did my doubts begin to grow.
No longer to carry ’round and ’round –
Today I decided to put them down.

Today I held my child’s hand
And in it found a new command:
Ears to listen, eyes to see
Hands empty, heart free.

The Parable of the Wall

There was a wall of wood and stone
that all could touch but none could own.
It rose up like a fortress made
to guard the village in the glade
and show the hungry their way home.

How old was it? No one knew;
but in its shade the stories grew:
tales of danger and disguise,
songs of heroes brave and wise,
forgotten fables learned anew.

Along the wall the children chased
each other round in fun and haste,
then paused to pick the berries red
that grew among its leafy bed,
‘fore back along the path they raced.

Old men went to the wall to pray
and thank the Lord for one more day:
to rest their bones in gentle shade,
and call to children when they strayed,
recalling days when they did play.

What hand did build it tall, and when?
That of God, or those of men?
And what lay past its skyward heights:
a paradise of strange delights?
None could answer, now as then.

A voice began to call for change,
the ancient ways to rearrange:
‘The other side we need to see
to grasp our divine destiny,
for only then can we be free.’

‘No longer shall we run and hide,
No old man’s laws or rules abide!
Let’s raise our hammers, tear it down—
so we can run for miles ‘round!
Our hope lies on the other side.’

The old warned of traditions tossed,
but they were frail; their words were lost.
The healthy could not break their swing—
too busy with the harvesting
to contemplate the unknown cost.

So hammers swung and stones rained down
until they hit the dusty ground.
The sun shone through where once had stood
a wall of blood and stone and wood,
but paradise was nowhere found.

Instead the people gasped in fright;
their eyes beheld a grisly sight:
a barren land where nothing grew,
but monsters leapt and demons flew,
as daytime blended into night.

The guilty perished in the jaws
of brutal beasts, but in their claws
the children young, and old men too
were gathered up as off they flew
with not a warning or just cause.

Then fathers wept and mothers cried,
too late to stop their town’s demise.
They patched the hole but not before
a hundred died and many more
were taken to the other side.

So listen close and listen fast;
respect the lessons of the past:
not every wall is to confine,
not every law a needless line,
but some to help true freedom last.