rev. r.r. Wilkinson protest Washington park dump

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Washington Park Dump in 1963 across Lincoln Terrace public housing in Roanoke, Virginia.

WASHINGTON PARK DUMP

For nearly two decades, Roanoke operated an open-air landfill adjacent to the city's African American public housing projects, hospital, park, and primary and secondary schools. The city deposited tens of tons of uncovered waste each day in Washington Park. The awful stench of rotting garbage and routine fires caused by methane gas seeping from the dump left black neighborhood residents, especially the schoolchildren with respiratory problems and unsavory living conditions. The city incinerator was just a few blocks away. It spread diseases, fires were frequent, and rats were all over. Black men from Lincoln Terrace had to form armed groups to fight rats coming out of the dump into the neighborhood. Black students from Lincoln Terrace would cut a path through the dump to get to Lucy Addison High School. If there was a fire, you had to change your path. The only swimming pool for blacks was in Washington Park. By the early 1960’s it had to be closed because rats as well as garbage would be in the pool. In 1963 the controversy that surrounded the Washington Park dump in Roanoke became a scene of confrontation between an all white Roanoke City Council and the African American residents. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the Roanoke NAACP led a protest to close Washington Park dump and move it out of the black community.

BIRACIAL COMMITTEE REASSEMBLES TO CLOSE DUMP

To discuss methods on how to convince the mayor to close Washington Park dump, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson called a secret Biracial Committee meeting which was convened in March 1963. A committee member named A. Byron Smith who was Roanoke's Parent Teacher Association Representative, and the founder of A. Byron Smith Oil Company was appointed by Rev. R.R. Wilkinson to be Co Chairman of the Biracial Committee and liaison on closing the dump. During the meeting, the Biracial Committee came to an agreement and strategize a reasonable date of June 1st, 1963 to close and move the dump out of Washington Park. The following week A. Byron Smith organized a meeting between Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and Mayor Murray A. Stoller to discuss the Washington Park Dump situation. Rev. Wilkinson conveyed to the Mayor of Roanoke how the dump in Washington Park has affected the African American community. The Biracial committee then proposed the June 1st date to Mayor Stoller to close Washington Park Dump and he agreed. Mayor Stoller convinced Roanoke City Council to vote on closing the dump by June 1st.

MAYOR STOLLER VS. CITY MANAGER OWENS

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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
Mayor Stoller accuses Roanoke City Manager Arthur S. Owens of persuading Roanoke City council to delay closing Washington Park Dump.

As plans for closing Washington Park Dump were already set-in motion by Roanoke City Council, suddenly, those plans had come to a standstill. Roanoke City Manager Arthur S. Owens questions the mayor and city council's haste in closing the dump. He felt that June 1st would be too quick. One of Owens reasons were that there was no new location available for a new dump. However, the black community suspected that Owens was doing the bidding of the white majority that wanted the dump to stay in Washington Park. Owens had a profound influence on Roanoke city council. Some of the city council members begin to side with Owens on delaying the closing of the dump by changing the deadline from June 1st, 1963 to January 1964. The Roanoke City Council became deadlock on this issue. Roanoke City Mayor Stoller was very aggravated by Owens and even threaten to fire him if he did not comply with the original date of June 1st, 1963 to close the dump. But Owens was not fazed by the mayor's threats, so the city council agreed with Owens suggestion to move the June 1st date next year. 

On May 11, 1963, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson is interviewed by a reporter outside Hill Street Baptist Church after a  6 hour NAACP meeting was held that night on their decision to move forward with peaceful protests and demonstrations on closing Washington Park dump.

Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the NAACP were disappointed that Roanoke City Council planned to change the dump closing deadline to a year instead of sticking to the June 1st deadline as they were promised. So, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson promised the Roanoke City Council that there will definitely be "Birmingham type demonstrations" if they refuse to change the deadline back to June 1st. Once the city council heard that there might possibly be demonstrations, they became nervous. The Roanoke City Council tried defusing the situation to stall demonstration plans by appeasing to Rev. R.R. Wilkinson with a plan of their own. The Roanoke City Council told the NAACP that they were building a new incinerator to put in Washington Park dump until they could find a new location for the dump. They urged the NAACP to be patient. Meanwhile, African Americans and their children were getting ill living with the dump in their neighborhood. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson did not take the bait. He told them "Out of the question." and was very adamant that the closing date be moved back to June 1st. On May 11, 1963, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson held a NAACP meeting with approximately 25 NAACP members at Hill Street Baptist Church to map out demonstration plans on protesting the Washington Park Dump. While Roanoke City Council remained in a deadlock on their decision whether to close the dump on June 1st or delay for another year, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the NAACP moved forward planning protests while support from allies grew in Roanoke.

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Rev. James A. Allison pastor of Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church was an ally of Rev. R.R. Wilkinson who was a staunch supporter of closing Washington Park Dump. 

REV. R.R. WILKINSON BATTLES ROANOKE CITY COUNCIL 

On May 13th, 1963 surrounded by reporters and cameras with a platoon of black and white clergymen and pastors behind him, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson threatens Roanoke City Council with demonstrations if they do not act quickly to close Washington Park Dump and move it out of the Black Neighborhood.       
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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times

"AMERICA'S NEW BLACK JOE!"

PART 2 of Rev. R.R. Wilkinson on May 13th, 1963 urging Roanoke City Council to close Dump or see demonstrations.

BABY CARRIAGE BRIGADE

 At one point, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson threatens a contentious all white Roanoke City Council that he will organize a "Baby Carriage Brigade" demonstration by marching mothers with their babies in carriages down to Washington Park dump to form a human barricade to keep dump trucks from entering Washington Park, if city council did not vote quickly to close the dump by June 1st.

BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY!

ROANOKE CITY COUNCIL VOTES TO CLOSE DUMP

May 24th, 1963
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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times

"I LEARNED TO MARCH A LONG TIME AGO!"

May 25th, 1963
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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times

Finally, on May 24th, 1963 the Roanoke City Council voted to close Washington Park Dump permanently on June 1st and move the dump to another location. The following night on May 25th the Roanoke NAACP and Rev. R.R. Wilkinson held a mass meeting at First Baptist Church on Jefferson Street hosted by the Rev. E. L. Green who was also a member of the Biracial Committee. Approximately 600 people gathered to celebrate their victory of closing Washington Park Dump. Civil Rights guest speakers, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson, Rev. Edward Burton, and A. Bryon Smith told the crowd to enjoy this victory but warned them that the battle against segregation and job discrimination is not over. The fight for equal rights and social justice continues.

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"IF THE BARS OF SEGREGATION ARE NOT LOWERED, "I WONDER IF YOU ARE WILLING, "IF YOU ARE READY?" "I LEARNED TO MARCH
A LONG TIME AGO." ----- REV. R.R. WILKINSON