‘A giant in this community:’ Lynchburg celebrates unveiling of statue honoring city’s first Black mayor

When M.W. Thornhill IV first saw the statue honoring his grandfather, M.W. “Teedy” Thornhill Jr., he was overtaken with emotions because of what his grandfather meant to him.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” the younger Thornhill said, searching for words in the emotion of the moment. “I live downtown, I can come in here and just have a part of him, and be here, and see him, it’s just — it’s amazing.”

Hundreds gathered in the usually bustling roundabout at 5th and Federal streets for a festive Saturday morning as Lynchburg celebrated the installation of a statue honoring Thornhill Jr., created to memorialize the city’s first Black mayor and a trailblazer of civil rights in the Hill City.

Thornhill was the first person elected to represent the new historically Black Ward II on Lynchburg City Council in 1976, and ascended to the position of mayor in 1990 before leaving council in 1992.

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Professionally, Thornhill served as the president and owner of Community Funeral Home, a stone’s throw away from where the statue that will forever honor him now sits.

Additionally, he was very active in politics during his entire life, serving as the president of the Lynchburg Voters League for more than 40 years.

Saturday’s celebration, according to Lynchburg’s chief public history officer Ted Delaney, was the first of its kind in some time.

The ceremony marked the first time in 108 years, he said, since the public and private sectors partnered in Lynchburg to unveil a statue of a local resident. The last one, Delaney said, was a statue honoring the “Lame Lion of Lynchburg,” John Warwick Daniel, who served as a U.S. senator for two decades.

“That is the exclusive company that Mayor Thornhill now keeps,” he added.

The statue and pedestal tower over the middle of the intersection, standing around 20 feet above the grade of the street. The statue itself — nine feet from head-to-toe — is fitting for an individual who was larger than life.

“He’s a giant in this community,” Thornhill IV said. “… And it’s fitting that we’re here today on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, or 5th Street, in the middle of a community he loved.”

Nearly 20 years in the making, the placement of the statue is no coincidence.

In the center of Lynchburg’s African American community and holding his right arm out atop the pedestal, Thornhill stands “ready to welcome the world into his home on 5th Street,” Delaney said.

City Planner Tom Martin, when presenting the statue’s installation plan before Lynchburg City Council in late June, said the city’s Fifth Street Master Plan, adopted in 2006, “always suggested that the 5th Street roundabout could contain a statue of [an] iconic person.”

Pat Price recalled how the monument came to be, saying, “when the concept of the roundabout came about, we always knew we would have a statue in the center, it was just a matter of trying to choose who it was that we wanted to honor, because 5th Street is the center of our African American community.”

Construction on Phase I of the Fifth Street Master Plan was completed in 2009, according to the city, which included the roundabout at 5th and Federal streets.

“If you look at it,” Price said, “this is about halfway between where all of the African American businesses were, so this is really the focal point of where the renovations that were going on in this corridor.”

With a statue in mind, the question as to who it would honor was answered in 2016, when the Fifth Street Community Development Corporation settled on Thornhill as the honoree out of a list of about 10 to 15 names, according to archives from The News & Advance.

Thornhill’s inclusion on the list came prior to his death in July 2016 at the age of 95, but he was officially selected as the subject in September 2016 after his death.

Then-Chairman of the Fifth Street Community Development Committee Eddie Claiborne said in a March 2017 interview that Thornhill was selected because of his civil rights work, service as the first Black mayor and his philanthropy throughout the city.

During Saturday’s ceremony, current president of the Fifth Street CDC Alvin Elliott recognized the work of many who helped the statue come to be, including the late Claiborne; Martin; David Neumeyer, a Lynchburg attorney who assisted in fundraising; and several others.

The statue’s base was designed by Hill Studios, Wiley & Wilson provided the engineer work, and the statue itself was designed by Ed Walker and casted by Carolina Bronze in Seagrove, North Carolina.

Remarking on her predecessor of more than 30 years, Mayor Stephanie Reed said the statue not only honors Thornhill’s legacy, but also “serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration to future generations.”

“As we gather today,” she continued, “we reaffirm our commitment to honor the legacy of Mayor Thornhill by continuing to build a city where opportunities abound, where hard work and acts of service can improve the lives of our neighbors, and where every individual contribution is celebrated.”

For those who were close with him, Thornhill was known for being someone people “just gravitated to.” His grandson said he will “never forget riding around with him on funerals … and how he just never met a stranger.”

“He was always just so willing to hook people in and help people out,” Thornhill IV said. “He was an open book guy, a real person, and he was very passionate about everything he did.”

The Rev. Carl Hutcherson Jr., who served as Lynchburg’s mayor from 2000 to 2006, echoed those sentiments.

“A person of integrity, a person who cared, not only about 5th Street, he cared about the total community,” he said. “Lynchburg was blessed to have an M.W. Thornhill Jr., not only as a mayor, but as a citizen of this city.”

The weekend of the statue unveiling was also celebrated for another reason, as graduates of the old Dunbar High School gathered for their annual all-Dunbar reunion, which also happened to be the high school that Thornhill graduated from in 1940.

Before leading the crowd in a rendition of the alma mater song, Hutcherson gave a reminder of “African tradition,” saying “as long as a person is remembered, they’d never die.”

For as long as cars and people frequent through 5th Street, Thornhill will live forever.

“We’re simply going to say to M.W. Thornhill, ‘Goodnight Teedy,’” Hutcherson later said. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

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