Roanoke’s Once Vibrant African-American Community Remembered 

Audio excerpt of tour with Jordan Bell, African-American history guide, Roanoke, Virginia, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

In 2021, Americans marked the centennial of the destruction of Greenwood, the African-American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street. Between 75 and 300 people were killed in that horrific 1921 tragedy, hundreds more were injured and the homes of 5,000 residents and Black-owned businesses were destroyed.

Another community known as Black Wall Street did not suffer a race massacre, but it was destroyed just the same. Gainsboro, the Black community of Roanoke, Virginia, was destroyed through the process of urban renewal, what local residents called “Negro removal.” Through three major projects in the 1950s and 1960s, homes were taken by eminent domain and the professionals who lived and practiced there, as well as the vibrant social life, were wiped out.

A young African-American named Jordan Bell grew up in Roanoke and now leads tours of the formerly vibrant community of Gainsboro. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus participated in the Walk for Appalachia’s Future in late May and early June and recorded Bell’s tour narrative that recounted Roanoke’s now hidden African-American history.

JORDAN BELL: This is a very important tour. There are environmental issues here in Gainsboro, has been for hundreds of years. There’s racist resources (in) the way that resources are given here in the city of Roanoke to this area. And this area is, as I like to say, an ignored area by many people in leadership. And it’s been like that for 60, 70 years. So this is again the Gainsboro area. And this used to be what many people referenced as the Black Wall Street. Over the past two years, you’ve probably seen in the news Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Greenwood district. Well, this was southwest Virginia’s Black Wall Street. It had over 200 businesses. It had a medical clinic. It had its own hospital. It had its own library. It had doctors’ offices. It had taxi companies, movie theaters, hotels. It even had the first black life-saving crew in the country, started right here in Roanoke Virginia in 1941.

Gainsboro produced the first black ambassador in the country, civil rights attorney, doctors, lawyers and everybody were next door neighbors. So you could have lived right next door to your doctor. You could have lived right next door to your teacher. But when urban renewal hit here in the 1950s, it completely wiped it away. And so many people classified it urban renewal, but many people in this community back then called it “Negro removal.”

Dr. Isaac Burrell was the leading African-American physician here in Roanoke. He passed away in 1914 after he was refused surgery by all the major white hospitals here in the city of Roanoke. He developed gallstones and he was refused surgery. So he, his wife and a colleague got on a train and had to travel over 200 miles to Howard University Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, he passed away from that surgery, but 10 years prior to that and in 1915, after his death, his colleagues started Burrell Memorial Hospital, which was the first black hospital in southwest Virginia.

So what happened was they blocked off all traffic access. They blocked off all walking access. They blocked off you being able to drive from this neighborhood to that neighborhood without having to go all the way around or walk simply down the street to that area.

Urban renewal projects. There were three here in Roanoke. This was the most urban renewal project city in the country. Usually you only have one major project. That’s where you build an interstate or a civic center. Here in Roanoke, there were three. In 1955, you had the Commonwealth project.1964, you had the Kimball project. And in 1968, you had the Gainsboro project.

Over 1,000 homes were completely destroyed. Many of those homes set ablaze. Over 200 businesses. Over 10 schools and over 10 churches. On this street right here, there was an elementary school called Gainsboro Elementary School. There was also a church called Mount Zion, completely wiped away. There was an old YMCA directly across the street wiped away. There were over 1,000 dead bodies dug up from a cemetery called Old Lick cemetery and dumped in a mass grave.

So this area was really completely destroyed by governmental policies and still continue to be ignored by governmental policies.

TOURIST: You mentioned three urban renewal projects. What were they supposed to be for?

JORDAN BELL: They were supposed to rebuild homes. That was the promise to the community. So what they did was, they put the word “blighted” on those properties. And once your property is considered blighted, the federal government, the state government, they give what happened here. They gave the Roanoke Housing Authority millions and millions of dollars to proceed with these projects. And you’re supposed to be given just compensation for your property. And what was supposed to happen was they were supposed to rebuild the homes or they told them that they were gonna rebuild the homes.

That never happened. What they did was they built housing projects. And if you grew up in the Northeast section where the Burgland Center is more than likely, you were told to move into the Lincoln Terrace housing projects. So your homes were not rebuilt in the 1950s. Let’s say a home was $15,000. If your home was worth $15,000, they might have given you you $1,500.

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