United in tragedy

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Michael Abraham

For most of us around here, April 16, 2007 was a day we’ll never forget. The tenth anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech gave us all the opportunity to reflect and remember, and to honor the 32 Hokies we lost that awful day.


Being part of a Tech Legacy Family – my father went to Tech, I went to Tech, my younger brother went to Tech, my wife got her doctorate at Tech, and my daughter went to Tech – it hit me particularly hard.

My wife, daughter and I participated in the Remembrance Run for 32. Any notion that Hokie Nation would forget about that day or those lost was amply vanquished, as officials estimated that over 16,000 people participated. Many of them were in grade school when it happened.

Sadly, our community isn’t the only one that has dealt with gun violence on a massive scale.

A few days later, my wife and I hit the road for a mini-vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. I’d never been to that historic city and always wanted to go, especially to visit Fort Sumter on an island in the Charleston harbor where the Civil War’s first shots were fired.

After our tour boat returned from the tiny island where the fort is located, we found ourselves in the midst of a fascinating conversation.

Before our tour, we walked towards the main business district past the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel, the oldest black congregation in the southern states.

Founded around 1817, in its 200 years, it has become one of the most influential churches for blacks in America. In spite of that, I’d never heard of it, and probably never would have, except that on June 17, 2015, nine people were shot and killed there. The perpetrator was a 21-year old white supremacist, motivated in his madness through hatred.

The conversation I mentioned was with a volunteer at the Aquarium next to the boat dock. She gave us a short ride in a golf cart to save us a few steps. She was a youthful retiree from a career teaching second grade in a nearby school. Her husband had played football for Clemson decades earlier and they were fans, so she recognized the VT logo on our hats.

I asked about the AME church and the shooting there. She knew about the shooting at Tech, and we reminded her that it happened 10 years earlier. She asked if people still remembered it.

I told her about the 16,000 people who attended the Remembrance Run. I told her that the sentiment around Tech and Blacksburg has never wavered. We are Virginia Tech. We will never forget.

The AME church, as part of a pre-emancipation South, has a tumultuous history. And like most Southern cities, Charleston has struggled to bring the races together in our common humanity.

There were many differences in the situations, at Tech and the AME church. At the church, the nine people were shot simply because they were black and the shooter was an avowed racist. He was soon captured and arrested, and has since been convicted of 33 federal hate crime charges and has been sentenced to death.

At Tech, the shooter was motivated by his own delusions and was the last victim of his own malevolence.

In a way, it seems like a good thing that his suicide put an instant closure to that aspect of the horror that survivors and victims’ families never had to suffer through his capture, trials and aftermath.

She said about their murderer, “He was methodical. He attended a prayer meeting with the victims. He said later they treated him so well, he almost decided not to shoot them. Almost.”

She said she was amazed at the reaction of her community, the outpouring of love and support for those affected by their shooting. She said that in the midst of the grieving and sadness, it had the city-wide effect of bringing everyone together in a way she’d never seen before.

How everybody had been just a little bit kinder, more patient and more aware of our shared destiny since then.

We sat there, total strangers moments earlier, moist-eyed, united in tragedy, hoping that nothing like this will ever happen again in America. But fully resigned to the notion that it almost inevitably will.

Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.