A guide to Black history with relevant experiences, stories, and places of interest around the region.
The Historic Gainsboro neighborhood of Roanoke is rich with history and this self-guided tour, created by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, is a fantastic resource to learn some of the history and heritage of the neighborhood.
The tour of Historic Gainsboro was originally created as a one-month virtual event and part of the Welcoming Roanoke campaign for equality and inclusion but will continue to be offered as a way to encourage locals and visitors to check out the different locations and learn about our local history.
Here is a link to the original tour on the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC website: Self-Guided Gainsboro History Tour
As you walk along the tour, you’re encouraged to document the experience and share it with images on social media that also use the hashtag #RoanokeBlackHistory5K.
NOTE - Be mindful that some of these locations are still active, operating facilities, places of business, and private residences. Please be courteous and respect the privacy of the businesses and individuals.
A. Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare/Burrell Memorial Hospital
B. Lucy Addison High School Monument Wall
C. Washington Park
D. Harrison School Apartments
E. Oliver Hill and Edward Dudley Homeplaces
F. Gainsboro Library and Claytor Compound
G. Dumas Center for Artistic and Cultural Development
H. Martin Luther King Jr. Statue & Bridge
I. Harrison Museum of African American Culture
J. End Racism Mural
Map of Locations
This self-guided tour will introduce you to Roanoke’s historic Gainsboro neighborhood, a predominantly black enclave where residents built a community that included self-sufficient businesses, medical offices & facilities, churches, schools, and a vibrant center of Black culture and commerce in the American south. It’s been described as “Roanoke’s Black Wall Street.” The neighborhood’s close proximity to the Norfolk Southern Railway shops also attracted many Black families in search of employment.
Henry Street was the heart of entertainment in Gainsboro, with restaurants, hotels, and clubs that hosted musical icons like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, and Dizzie Gillespie.
When the City of Roanoke adopted federally backed “Urban Renewal” processes in the 1950s, it decimated the city’s Black neighborhoods - like Gainsboro. City leaders declared large sections of Black neighborhoods “blighted,” which led to properties being bought or condemned, and the leveling of 1,600 homes, 200 businesses, and 24 churches.
Many important commercial and institutional buildings, as well as private homes, remain in the Gainsboro neighborhood. Visit these spots and experience their powerful history and culture as you walk through this special part of Roanoke in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Address: 611 McDowell Avenue NW
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 accreditation. 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.
NEXT STEP: Read an article about racism in the medical field, such as this one - How we fail black patients in pain
Address: 11250 5th Street NW
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 of 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 farmland 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 accreditation. By 1924, the Harrison School became a fully accredited high school. She retired in 1927 and moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her family.
On September 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
NEXT STEP: Write down the name of one person listed on the monument wall and think about the barriers they overcame.
Address: 1600 Burrell Street NW
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. Within weeks, the city relented and the dump was closed.
Source: The Roanoke Times' Discover: History & Heritage Magazine
NEXT STEP: Take a selfie along the Lick Run Greenway as you pass through the park.
Address: 523 Harrison Avenue NW
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 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 the school in the fall of 1971.
The Harrison School subsequently 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 and another stop on this tour.
NEXT STEP: Think about an educator of color who had a positive impact on you.
Addresses: 401 & 405 Gilmer Avenue NW
Two barrier-breaking racial pioneers on the national stage grew up next to 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 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 establishing 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 Civil 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 persevered 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
NEXT STEP: Write down a fact about Oliver Hill from the state historical marker in front of his childhood home.
Address: 15 Patton Avenue NW
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, with 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 historically African American collection at the library that drew opposition from Roanoke City Council. When the council told Lee to remove the collection, Lee put 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 a librarian for 43 years. She died on 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 physician 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 included 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, where father and sons all practiced, still stands on the property. A gas station on the north side of the plot is long gone.
NEXT STEP: Find and photograph the name of Dr. Claytor embedded in tiles along the sidewalk on Patton Avenue.
Address: 108 1st Street
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 meetings, 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 safe places, including 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.
NEXT STEP: Take a photo of the plaque on the building depicting its former owners.
Address: 1st Street NW
Martin Luther King Statue 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
NEXT STEP: Recite the quote from Dr. King on the base of the statue.
Address: 1 Market Square SE
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. Its 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 the Harrison Museum in the month of September to recognize and celebrate the rich culture and heritage of people of African descent.
NEXT STEP: Visit the museum and create a social media post sharing one fact you learned during your visit.
Address: 200 Campbell Avenue SW
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 gained support 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
NEXT STEP: Take a picture of your favorite letter in the mural and think about the work you're going to do to end racism now.
We’d like to thank the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine for creating this self-guided tour and for giving us permission to feature it on the Visit VBR website.
Check out other history experiences and things to do in Virginia's Blue Ridge by visiting the following pages.