Self-Guided Gainsboro History Tour 5K
Meet one of Roanoke's oldest, most-treasured neighborhoods
On the Gainsboro History Tour of African American Culture – 5K informational walk, you'll explore the historic Gainsboro neighborhood, a predominantly Black enclave where more than a century ago residents seeded their own self-sufficient businesses, medical facilities, churches and schools and fostered one of the most vibrant centers of Black culture and commerce in the American South.
The present Gainsboro is the remnant of the original 1835 settlement of Gainesborough, the Roanoke Valley’s oldest town. It was later known as Old Lick, after the establishment of nearby Big Lick. In 1882, the two were incorporated under the single name of Roanoke City.
The Gainsboro neighborhood became the hub of a thriving, and economically diverse black community with its own doctors, lawyers, pharmacies, restaurants, hotels and night clubs – all just south of the tracks in the Norfolk Southern Railway yard, which drew many Black families in search of employment to the neighborhood early on. Henry Street, with its hotels, restaurants and clubs, was a regular stop for mid-century jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lional Hampton, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Nat “King” Cole and Dizzie Gillespie.
Roanoke’s adoption of federally backed “Urban Renewal” practices starting in the 1950s, however, decimated the city’s black neighborhoods, including Gainsboro. Under the policy, city leaders declared vast swaths of Black neighborhoods “blighted,” bought or condemned the property, and leveled 1,600 homes, 200 businesses and 24 churches.
A number of important commercial and institutional buildings and private homes remain, however. Learn about them as you tour this still proud neighborhood and take in its stories.
Take the tour
The tour was developed as a one-month event but the sites are always important. Following the route you'll visit ten historic locations. Document your visit as you go: share images on social media using the hashtag: #RoanokeBlackHistory5K.
Photo courtesy of The Virginia Room, Roanoke Public Libraries
The tour begins at on McDowell Avenue Northwest, but ends downtown, so consider leaving a car near the Roanoke City Municipal Building on Campbell Avenue.
The structure that today is a Blue Ridge Healthcare facility was for decades Roanoke's segregation era Black hospital.
Formerly the Allegheny Institute, the hospital was named for Isaac David Burrell, a Black physician in Roanoke. Dr. Burrell was in the process of opening a hospital on Henry Street with six other Black physicians, when he fell severely ill due to gallstones. White hospitals refused to operate, so he was forced to travel on a cot in a train's baggage car to Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C., for treatment. His condition too advanced, he died on March 14, 1914. A year later, on March 18, 1915, the hospital that Dr. Burrell and his colleagues worked hard to establish opened and was named Burrell Memorial Hospital. The hospital was committed to training black nurses and, in 1925, the Burrell Memorial Training School for Nurses gained accredidation. In 1955, a larger facility was constructed beside the old facilities, and by 1968, due to integration and economic factors, the Burrell Memorial Hospital became affiliated with Roanoke Community Hospital. After 63 years of service, the Burrell Memorial Hospital closed its general hospital operations in 1978 and reopened in 1979 as the Burrell Home for Adults, later named the Burrell Nursing Center in 1990.
Checkpoint: Read an article on racism in the medical field, such as this one.
Lucy Addison High School, Roanoke's segregation-era Black high school, claims a long legacy of producing Black men and women who broke barriers and changed worlds, and thousands of others who credit the school and its faculty and staff with not only educating them, but rearing them with self-respect and an insistence upon their rightful place in the wider, whiter world.
Addison alumni include Edward R. Dudley Jr., the nation’s first black ambassador; Edward King Jr., a 1957 graduate who at 21 was secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and an organizer the Freedom Rides to integrate bus terminals in Alabama and Mississippi; William Robertson, the first black person on a Virginia governor’s executive staff, named by Linwood Holton to be assistant for minority and consumer affairs; and four Tuskegee airmen, the storied and decorated black World War II pilots.
The school, now a middle-school, is named for storied Black educator Lucy Addison, born on December 8, 1861 in Upperville, Virginia. Her parents, Charles Addison and Elizabeth Anderson Addison, were slaves. After her family was emancipated, Lucy's father bought farm land in Fauquier County. Addison was a driven student. She graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia in 1882, and attended continuing education courses at Howard University and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1886, she moved to Roanoke to teach at the First Ward Colored School, where she briefly served as the interim principal, and served as a teacher and assistant principal for more than a decade.
Addison was hired as the principal for the Harrison School, which was accredited to teach up to eighth grade. Black teens therefore had to leave home to complete high school. Addison expanded the curriculum and lobbied the Virginia State Board of Education for full accredidation. By 1924, the Harrison School became a fully accredited high school. She retired in 1927 and moved to Washington, D.C., to live with family.
On Sept. 12, 2015, hundreds of people attended the unveiling of the Lucy Addison High School monument wall. View the Roanoke Times Gallery
Sources: Encyclopedia Virginia and The Roanoke Times
Checkpoint: Submit the name of one person listed on the monument wall.
Roanoke's Lick Run Greenway passes through a lush and sprawling green called Washington Park. For much of the 20th century, that same beautiful spot was the city's dump -- and the bane of Black Roanokers whose neighborhoods surrounded it.
By the early 1960s, the dump had become a civil rights issue -- a symbol of the city government's lack of regard for its Black citizens. The city promised to close it, but seemed in no hurry.
In 1963, civil rights activists, led by NAACP president Rev. R.R. Wilkinson, demanded the city close the landfill and cap it. Wilkinson told city council if they didn’t close the landfill, he would organize a “baby carriage blockade” of the landfill entrance. He would get women with babies in carriages to line up across the road to block trucks from dumping there. Witin weeks, the city relented and the dump was closed.
Source: The Roanoke Times' Discover: History & Heritage Magazine
Checkpoint: Take a selfie along the Lick Run Greenway as you pass through the park.
Up until the 1960s, the Harrison School Apartments were the Harrison School, a school that enabled Black children to stay in the Roanoke Valley for their education through middle and high school. Before Lucy Addison, formerly the Harrison School principal, expanded curriculum and lobbied for the Harrison to become an accredited high school, Roanoke Black youth needed to move to Petersburg, 170 miles away, to complete any education past the seventh grade.
Despite the Brown V. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering integration of American schools, school divisions in Virginia engaged in "Massive Resistance" to the order and refused to integrate. This included Roanoke, which was ultimately sued by the Roanoke NAACP, leading to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of appeals to place the city under court order to integrate. Even so, school leaders slow-walked desegregation. The first black students to break the color barrier in Roanoke did so in 1960. The process of school integration wasn't complete until the opening of school in the fall of 1971.
The Harrison School subseqently closed. Later, it was for many years the home of the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, which is now located in Market Square in downtown Roanoke (the final stop on our 5K tour!).
Checkpoint: Send a blurb about an educator of color who had a positive impact on you.
Two barrier-breaking racial pioneers on the national stage grew up next each other on this block of Gilmer Avenue. Oliver Hill helped lead the legal charge that ended school segregation in America. Edward R. Dudley Jr. became America's first Black U.S. Ambassador.
Oliver White Hill
Born on May 1, 1907 in Richmond, Virginia, Oliver White Hill was a civil rights attorney best known for his work to desegregate public schools. Hill and partner Spottswood Robinson represented students in Prince Edward County in a lawsuit against the school system there, a case that became part of the Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court decision, which struck down segregated schools in 1954.
Though born in the state capital, Hill spent his formative years in Roanoke with the Bradford and Lelia Pentecost at 401 Gilmer Ave. while his parents traveled for work. For all of his life, Hill credited his surrogate parents and upbringing in Roanoke with instilling in him the self-respect and regard for the human dignity of others that drove his success in civil rights law.
After graduating from Howard University Law School in 1933, Hill first practiced law briefly -- and with little compensation -- in Roanoke. But during that time he began establishign a reputation with the NAACP as a civil rights advocate. He later founded the firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, and became a powerful force on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's legal team. In 1943 Hill joined the army and served in Europe. When he returned from duty, he successfully fought for equal school transportation for Black children. In 1948, Hill was elected to the Richmond City Council, becoming the first Black Councilmember elected in Richmond since Reconstruction. Hill went on to lead a team of lawyers, along with his partner Spotswood W. Robinson, and filed as many as 75 cases pending at a time. By 1960, Hill was appointed to the national Democratic Party's Biracial Committee on Civial Rights, and in 1961, President Kennedy appointed Hill as an assistant for the intergroup relations to the Federal Housing Administration commission. Despite death threats and even a cross burning in his yard, Hill perservered and continued his important work.
Hill lived to be 100 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton.
Edward R. Dudley Jr.
In 1949, Edward R. Dudley became the first African American to hold the rank of ambassador. Before becoming an ambassador, Dudley had a distinguished career as an attorney. Ambassador Dudley was a civil rights lawyer in the 1940s, appointed to the New York Attorney General’s Office and then was recruited by Thurgood Marshall to become a Special Assistant at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Subsequently, he became the Legal Counsel to the Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, moving there with his young family.
In 1948, President Harry Truman sent Dudley to Liberia as U.S. Envoy and Minister. Upon elevation of the Mission in Liberia to a full U.S. Embassy in 1949, Dudley was promoted to the rank of Ambassador. With that, Ambassador Dudley became the first black Ambassador in U.S. history. This also made him the highest ranking diplomat, often referred to as the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia.
After departing Liberia in 1953 he continued to practice law and was later elected to the New York Supreme Court in 1965, serving on the high court until 1985.
Sources: The Oliver White Hill Foundation and We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow, by Margaret Edds; The Legacy of Edward R. Dudley: Civil Rights Activist and the First African American Ambassador
Checkpoint: Send in one fact about Oliver Hill from the state historical marker in front of his childhood home.
Gainsboro Branch Library
In 1940, the Gainsboro Library was housed in the flood-prone basement of the old Hunton YMCA. But it was the only place where Black Roanokers could check out books. A local Gainsboro resident, Virginia Lee, sought assistance from the City of Roanoke to build a new library. But city officials would not pay for both the land and a new library building. So, Lee mustered the nerve to walk up the hill to St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, where she asked the priest to donate the land. Not only did the priest comply, in an official request to the Vatican in Rome, he also persuaded Pope Pius XII to give his permission as well.
Lee, a graduate of Lucy Addison High School, curated a literary and historical African American collection at the library that drew opposition from Roanoke City Council. When the council told Lee to remove the collection, Lee it in the basement and continued collecting materials.
Today, the Gainsboro Library’s Virginia Y. Lee Collection is named in her honor. Lee served as librarian for 43 years. She died January 11, 1992.
Claytor Family Compound
Gainsboro's Claytor family was the symbol of Black attainment and self-sufficiency in Roanoke. Patriarch John Claytor, a physican and a founder of Burrell Memorial Hospital, was one of 13 children, all of whom were college educated. He and Roberta Morris Woodfin Claytor's own children includedf two doctors, a dentist, and one of the storied Tuskegee Airmen, the elite Black World War II fighter pilots.
Besides being a doctor, Claytor Sr. owned the Cosmopolitan Co., real estate, Miller’s Sanitary Barber Shop and the Ideal Pharmacy Inc.
The Claytors lived in what's reputed to be one of the largest Black-owned homes in Virginia in its day, on the hill just across from the library. They brought in a Black builder because no white contractor would touch it. Instead, a cross was burned on the property. Decades later, the home itself burned. The Claytor Clinic building, were father and sons all practiced, still stands on the property. A gas station on the north side of the plot is long gone.
Checkpoint: Find and photograph name of Dr. Claytor in tiles embedded in the sidewalk along Patton Avenue. Send that picture in.
Perhaps the single most important place on Henry Street was the Hotel Dumas, where safe, first-class overnight accommodations were provided for African Americans traveling through southwest Virginia. It was the place where African American clubs, fraternities, sororities, and other organizations held meeting, conferences, dances, debutante balls, and cotillions.
The Dumas was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, popularly known as the Green Book, which inspired the Oscar-award winning 2018 film Green Book. The book was a guide that advised Black travelers of save places to restaurants and stores to patronize and hotels to book lodging in the Jim Crow south.
When African American musicians traveled to Roanoke to perform at the Hotel Roanoke or Star City American Legion Auditorium during segregation, they were not allowed to stay overnight anywhere except in the ‘colored’ hotels such as the Hotel Dumas. The guest list of the Hotel Dumas includes the greatest names in American jazz such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lena Horn, Dizzy Gillespie, "Fats" Waller, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others. After regular shows, audiences would often accompany the performers back to the Hotel Dumas and other nightspots on Henry Street for all-night jam sessions.
Checkpoint: Take and submit a photo of the plaque on the building depicting its former owners.
Martin Luther King Statute and Bridge (across from the Dumas Center) - The Martin Luther King Jr. statue at the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge in Downtown Roanoke stands as a 7-foot tall bronze statue that was designed by the husband-and-wife team of Jeffery and Anna Varilla. The bridge, formerly known as the Henry Street Bridge or the First Street Bridge, was closed to vehicular traffic and renamed and dedicated in honor of Dr. King in 2008. The spot used to serve as a symbol of segregation in the city as it divided Downtown Roanoke from the Gainsboro neighborhood. Now, the bridge and statue feature quotes from Dr. King and it serves as a powerful symbol of the region's rich African American heritage and history.
The statue and surrounding plaza have become the regular rallying point for groups calling for equality, equity and justice in Roanoke and the world, in the very tradition of King himself.
Source: The Roanoke Times
Checkpoint: Send in the quote from Dr. King on base of the statue.
The Harrison Museum of African American Cultures, Inc. is a cultural and educational institution committed to advocating, showcasing, preserving and celebrating the art and history of African Americans for Roanoke Valley citizens and visitors. It's purpose is to cultivate awareness and appreciation of the significant contributions of people of African descent.
Memorabilia, photographs, and objects relating to the African-American experience in the Roanoke Valley form an extensive portion of the Harrison Museum Permanent Collection. Oral stories and recollections as told by elders highlight the culture and significance of the valley’s black communities. These oral histories enhance the materials found in the museum’s archives. In addition, African and contemporary art are an integral part of the permanent collection. The annual Henry Street Heritage Festival is sponsored by Harrison Museum in the month of September to recognize and celebrate the rich culture and heritage of people of African descent.
Checkpoint: Visit the museum and send in one fact you learned while there.
This mural, in the middle of Campbell Avenue Southwest between 2nd and 3rd streets was created by a math teacher at Lucy Addison Middle School, Ms. Kameron Melton and a group of professionals that gathered initially in response to a Facebook posting in June, 2020. Over the next few weeks, the group, which included an attorney, a counselor, local entrepreneurs and others met with city officials and won support to for the project. Area artists designed the letters in the message, and in a single day on Sunday, July 12, painted the mural just outside of Roanoke's City Hall. City leaders kept that block of Campbell Avenue closed for a week to allow visitors to enjoy the artwork free of traffic.
Source: The Roanoke Times