Lylburn Liggins Downing (3 May 1862–15 February 1937), Presbyterian minister and civic leader, was born in Lexington to enslaved parents, Lylburn Downing, variously described as a nurse or hospital steward at the Virginia Military Institute, and Ellen Harvey Downing. Most likely he attained his freedom at the end of the Civil War. Downing attended local public schools and a blacks-only Sunday school class at Lexington Presbyterian Church, in which his parents had been taught by Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. On 10 October 1888 Downing married Lottie Jackson Clinton, of Atlantic City, New Jersey, daughter of a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Their one daughter and six sons included Ellwood Davis Downing, a Roanoke dentist and civic leader, and Lylburn Clinton Downing, a physician who helped establish the first hospital for African Americans in Roanoke.

Downing first wanted to study medicine but later decided to become a minister. He matriculated at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he finished his undergraduate studies in 1889 and continued theological study on the graduate level. When beginning college he worked in hotels to pay his expenses, but later he received a scholarship. During summer vacations from 1888 to 1891 Downing organized mission Sunday schools in Virginia under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the northern branch of the church since the denomination had split during the Civil War. He served as an instructor of Latin and English in the preparatory department of Lincoln University during the 1891–1892 term. Downing later stated that he had earned an A.M. from the university, although school records do not confirm the degree. He received a bachelor of sacred theology degree from Lincoln's theological seminary in 1894 and was ordained to the ministry by the Presbytery of Chester (Pennsylvania).

Downing moved to Roanoke in 1894 as supply minister of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which at the time worshiped in other church buildings and in the Odd Fellows Hall. When he arrived the congregation had only seven members and paid him a weekly salary of two dollars. Within a year the church had thirty-six active members, and in 1895 Downing was designated as pastor as the church began construction of its own building. He drew favorable attention from white residents in 1906 when his church installed a stained-glass window as a memorial to Stonewall Jackson, whom Downing said he had wished to honor with a monument ever since his boyhood in Lexington.

The Fifth Avenue congregation had grown to 150 congregants by 1914, and Downing continued as pastor until his death. He served three times as commissioner to the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., one term as moderator of the Synod of Catawba covering southern Virginia and North Carolina, and two terms as moderator of the Presbytery of Southern Virginia. Lincoln University awarded him an honorary doctorate of sacred theology in 1906.

A leader in many secular activities, Downing sat on the Roanoke City Republican Committee beginning in 1896 and for more than twenty years was its only African American member. He served as a delegate to the Republican State Convention at least four times. From 1916 until his death Downing worked as Roanoke's African American probation officer, and in 1919 he was instrumental in setting up a sixteen-room community home for delinquent and transient girls. He went to Denver as a delegate to the Negro National Educational Congress in 1912 and served as a vice president of the Negro Organization Society for several years beginning in 1913. On at least three occasions he attended the National Educational Association conventions as a delegate.

Downing served the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows as grand master of the Virginia Division from 1899 to 1903 and as chaplain of the Grand Staff in 1912. He was also grand master of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons for Virginia for the 1914–1915 term. During World War I, Downing promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds, and afterward he collected information on Roanoke's soldiers for the Virginia War History Commission (later known as the World War I History Commission). In 1927 a public school for African Americans in Lexington was named in his honor. Lylburn Liggins Downing died of heart disease at his Roanoke home on 15 February 1937. He was interred in Lincoln Burial Park (later C. C. Williams Memorial Park).


Sources Consulted:
Autobiographical information in Joseph B. Earnest Jr., "The Religious Development of the Negro in Virginia" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1914), 224 (with birth date and variant marriage date of 10 June 1888); biographies in Arthur B. Caldwell, ed., History of the American Negro, vol. 5: Virginia Edition (1921), 294–297 (portrait on 295 and variant marriage date of 3 June 1888), and Frank Lincoln Mather, ed., Who's Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent (1915), 1:95; biographical information, including birth date, provided by son Ellwood Davis Downing, 3 Jan. 1940, in Biographical Files, Virginia Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration of Virginia Papers, Accession 30432, Library of Virginia; publications include Downing, "A 'Stonewall' Jackson Memorial: A Personal Narrative," Southern Workman 46 (1917): 543–545, "The Probation Officer and the Delinquent Child," Virginia Conference of Charities and Correction Proceedings (1917), 21–23, and address in Rockbridge County News, 22 Sept. 1927; Washington Bee, 27 Oct. 1888 (marriage date of 10 Oct. 1888); Roanoke Times, 31 July 1906; Confederate Veteran 14 (1906): 408; Richmond Planet, 3 May 1919; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 20 July 1935; Death Certificate, Roanoke City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; obituaries in Roanoke Times and Roanoke World-News, both 16 Feb. 1937, and Pittsburgh Courier, 27 Feb. 1937.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by William B. Bynum.

How to cite this page:
William B. Bynum,"Lylburn Liggins Downing (1862–1937)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Downing_Lylburn_Liggins, accessed [today's date]).


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