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City Manager's Blog

Learn about the City of Roanoke from the City Manager's point of view.

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Feb 11

Celebrating Our History

Posted on February 11, 2019 at 2:17 PM by Whitney Slightham

Even as the news of the day is currently packed with examples seemingly of our inability to move beyond racism, we celebrate Black History Month.  I am using this blog to highlight both the contributions African Americans have made and some local actions that help celebrate those accomplishments and heal the wounds of local racism.

American History

I genuinely believe that black history is American history.  Essentially, from its inception-1619 in Virginia, when the oldest representative-governing body in the Western Hemisphere was founded, and when slaves were first brought from Africa—the growth and success of America has been dependent upon African Americans.  Economic growth and expansion in the first part of the 19th century were crucial to America’s success in a global market, and that success was, in large part, predicated on cotton, a crop that was raised, essentially, by slaves.  The rise of textile manufacturing in the North, global shipping, banking conducted in New York, and much of the regional trade in manufactured goods revolved around the dominance of cotton and cotton plantations.

In a sad bit of historical irony, America would not have its current place in the global economy if not for the successful implementation and spread of representative-government and reliance upon slave labor during its most formative years.

Roanoke History

The contributions made in Roanoke and the surrounding area is no less significant than those at the state and national level are.  Much attention has, as of late, been provided to Oliver White Hill Sr., without whom equal access to education and civil rights would have taken much longer to achieve and perhaps been much weaker.  Others who made significant contributions include Dr. Isaac David Burrell, who took steps to ensure all people, regardless of race, had access to needed medical care with the establishment of a hospital in Gainsboro; Miriam Smith and Kim Claytor who, along with others, established the first Black Licensed Practical Nursing School in Southwestern Virginia; and Mayor Noel C. Taylor, the city’s first African American Mayor who, over his four full terms as Mayor, saw Roanoke acknowledged as an All-America City three times.  And then, of course, there are the hundreds of laborers who toiled in the locomotive and rail shops of the Norfolk and Western Railway.

Healing from the History

As with the rest of the nation, Roanoke continues to struggle with racism and with the damage inflicted on past generations of African Americans still reverberating through current generations.  Several individuals and organizations over the years have focused on discussing these difficult issues and working to heal.  A few of the efforts underway this month include TAP’s Black History Month Celebration, which will take place Feb. 19 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, beginning at 10 a.m., and the Roanoke Valley “Changing the Narrative Project,” which will hold an event celebrating Gainsboro on Feb. 24 at the Gainsboro First Baptist Church, beginning at 4 p.m.  One can, of course, learn about African American history at any time by visiting the Harrison Museum of African American Culture located at Center in the Square, or by viewing the Gainsboro History Walk Interpretive Panels located on Wells Avenue across from Hotel Roanoke.

Much exists to celebrate regarding the contributions made by African Americans, and much work remains to address racism and to recover from the damage of the past so we can truly be one America with freedom and equality for all.  Let’s keep working at both here in Roanoke!

- Bob Cowell

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