fight to save
the URBAN RENEWAL of gainsboro
Courtesy of Hill Studio
This is a historic view of Roanoke's predominantly black Gainsboro neighborhood in 1924 looking north along Jefferson Street, the dividing boundary of Northwest and Northeast Roanoke. At top right on Jefferson Street is First Baptist Church, below is the Hotel Roanoke. One of the buildings at left would become the Dumas Hotel, which counted among its guests’ legends like jazz composer Duke Ellington and the first black major film director Oscar Micheaux who filmed 6 movies in Roanoke during the 1920's. It is now the Dumas Center for Artistic Development. Most of the houses and buildings shown here were completely destroyed and leveled by Roanoke Urban Renewal projects which started in the 1950's through the 1970's. This historic photo, from the Virginia Room archives is displayed in the Gainsboro History Walk on Wells Avenue.
Henry Street in the 1950s. The variety of black businesses on Henry Street is visible in this picture, including the Dumas Hotel, the Morocco Club, and several restaurants. Image from Mindy Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (One World/Ballantine, 2005), 85.
Black businesses thrived in the Gainsboro neighborhood of downtown Roanoke in the 1950s. These businesses were usually located on Henry Street, one of the main cultural and social centers for African Americans in Roanoke during the time of segregation. Henry Street, nicknamed “The Yard” by locals, was the location for more than 30 black businesses, which included restaurants such as Jimmy’s Restaurant, entertainment venues for blacks such as The Virginia Theatre, and nightclubs such as the Morocco Club. Other businesses on Henry Street consisted of barber shops, grocery stores, billiard parlors, cafes, coffee shops, music stores and medical offices. The black businesses of Henry Street in the 1950s contributed greatly to the black community in Roanoke in allowing for an inclusive environment where blacks could shop, eat, and gather without condemnation or persecution by whites. One of the most prominent businesses in Gainsboro was the Dumas Hotel, also located on Henry Street. The Dumas Hotel was built in 1916 and was owned and operated by “Mack” Barlow Jr. and his wife, Crystabel, from 1934 to 1976. During the 1950s, the Dumas Hotel played a large role as one of the two hotels that would provide accommodations for African Americans in the Roanoke Valley. The hotel had 26 bedrooms, a snack bar, a dining room, barber shop, pool room, ice cream parlor, and a second-floor ballroom. As one of the two black hotels during this time, the Dumas Hotel was a hub for social and cultural gatherings for African Americans. It provided accommodations for several prominent African American singers and musicians travelling in Roanoke during this time, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, and Louis Armstrong. The Dumas Hotel was where one could receive “home-cooked food, straight-ahead jazz and southern hospitality in abundance” according to Richard Hubb, a Roanoker who frequented Henry Street in the 1950s. Black businesses in Gainsboro thrived up until the 1960s and 1970s when urban renewal programs started to take effect. By the year 1950, 900 homes and 165 small businesses stood in Gainsboro all built and owned by African Americans.
Courtesy of The Historical Marker Database
A photo of Hill Street Baptist Church year 1899 in the old Gainsboro neighborhood on McDowell and Peach Road, NW in Roanoke, Virginia.
The Roanoke Urban Renewal project programs of the 1960's and 1970's displaced many African American families and businesses in the neighborhood and changed the overall urban fabric and character of the Gainsboro area. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson gained support from the black community to fight Urban Renewal. On behalf of the Gainsboro community, he pleaded with Roanoke City Council to end the Urban Renewal project immediately. However, some political black leaders in Roanoke thought Urban Renewal was a positive step forward in the right direction. They thought that Urban Renewal would bring in more jobs and money into the black community. Therefore, both black and white politicians in Roanoke government did not back Rev. R.R. Wilkinson or those in the Gainsboro community who did not agree with Urban Renewal. Another barrier against the Gainsboro community was that the wheels of Urban Renewal had already been set in motion since 1955 by white businessmen and members of Roanoke City Council. By the late 1970's the Roanoke Urban Renewal project demolished 1,600 black homes, 200 black businesses and 24 churches. In the 1960's Roanoke's historic African American cemetery called Old Lick cemetery was destroyed. Over 900 bodies were uprooted, put in boxes, and dumped into a mass grave down the road in order to complete the construction of Interstate 581. Today, I-581, the Roanoke Civic Center and nearby motels and businesses now stands in place of where a thriving black neighborhood once stood. Nevertheless, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson continued to fight Urban Renewal.
Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's Hill Street Baptist Church was purchased by the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority for Urban Renewal and was razed in March 1978. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson was very furious but determined not to let Urban Renewal Redevelopment tear down his church. He had several meetings with Roanoke City Council but was not able to persuade them to end Roanoke Redevelopment of Urban Renewal. Their excuse was that the contracts for Urban Renewal in Roanoke were already signed as far back as the 1950's and that Urban Renewal was set in stone so there was nothing they could do to stop it anyway, even if they wanted to. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson made it a point to mention to Roanoke City Council that those contracts were really meant to destroy the black community all along right under the Gainsboro community noses. Rev. Wilkinson called members of Roanoke City Council cowards for not even trying to put a stop to Urban Renewal. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson may not have been able to stop Urban Renewal, but he was dead set on saving Hill Street Baptist Church. So, he took matters into his own hands and set up meetings behind the scenes with certain members of Roanoke City Council that were against Urban Renewal through his Biracial Committee connections. Rev. Wilkinson also met with the Mayor of Roanoke Rev. Noel C. Taylor who came to Roanoke in 1961 and was pastor of High Street Baptist Church. It was Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's successful integration efforts in downtown Roanoke a year before in 1960 that paved the way for Rev. Noel C. Taylor to become Roanoke's first African American Mayor in 1975. But to Rev. Wilkinson's dismay, Mayor Noel Taylor supported the Roanoke Urban Renewal project. This controversial issue created friction between the two men.
Rev. R.R. Wilkinson chastised Mayor Noel Taylor in several meetings in the Mayor's office over his support of Urban Renewal and over the planned bulldozing of Hill Street Baptist Church. Rev. Wilkinson even threaten Mayor Taylor that he will use his influence in the Gainesboro community to convince every single black voter not to vote for him in the next election, if he did not put a stop to the bulldozing of Hill Street. Mayor Taylor told Rev. Wilkinson that the decision was out of his hands. Eventually, Hill Street Baptist Church was demolished. Several weeks later, however, Mayor Noel Taylor, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and several members of Roanoke City Council put their differences aside and all came to an agreement on building a new Hill Street. Because of the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's negotiation skills and extreme persistence, it was agreed between all parties involved that Roanoke Redevelopment would build a brand-new Hill Street Baptist Church in the original location of the old Hill Street in the reconstructed Gainsboro neighborhood of Roanoke, Virginia. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson also made sure that several black family's homes that were tore down during Urban Renewal were being rebuilt in Gainsboro too.
a new hill street
While Rev. R.R. Wilkinson continued to keep pressure on Mayor Noel Taylor and Roanoke City Council to honor their agreement, Hill Street worship services were held at Lucy Addison Junior High School for approximately two years. A new edifice was slated to be built in the same area of the former church. Under the leadership of Rev. R.R. Wilkinson, groundbreaking had begun for the new Hill Street Baptist Church. This event was held on Sunday, May 18th, 1980 after morning worship service. The congregation was led by Rev. R.R. Wilkinson who jokingly sang "Keep your eyes on the plow hold on" as they marched from Lucy Addison Junior High School to the new church on Sunday, March 1st, 1981. The new Hill Street Baptist Church still stands today at 111 Madison Ave. NW in Roanoke, Virginia.