At the Feet of Our Elders

Looking back at key black leaders who helped shape Roanoke

By Jordan Bell

When tourists travel to Roanoke like visitors to many cities, they spend the majority of their time in the downtown area. Visitors come to see the beautiful mountains and to visit the Mill Mountain Star. They come to learn about the important railroad history in Roanoke. Often times they completely skip a tour of one of the most historical sections of the city – Gainsboro. Gainsboro does not get its proper recognition from the city. It is a part of town everyone wants a piece of but only a few want to help make Gainsboro what it was once. Gainsboro is older than the City of Roanoke. It received its name from Major Kenya Gains, the financier of the settlement, after William Rowland established Roanoke in the mid-1800s. 

Why am I writing about an area since this column’s title is At the Feet of Our Elders? It should be about a specific person, right. However, I wanted to explain to you just in part where those elders and ancestors come from and what helped to make them who they are today. The community of Gainsboro has a wealth of history and importance to Roanoke, Virginia and the United States of America. North of Downtown Roanoke the section of Gainsboro includes streets such as Wells, Gilmer, Patton and Harrison Avenues and Henry Street. It contains institutions such as Burrell Memorial Hospital, now Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, the Dumas Center, formerly a hotel, Hotel Roanoke, Gainsboro Library, Claytor Memorial Clinic and many others. Urban renewal has changed the look of this area.

The true greatness of communities, like in other cities, is its people. The Gainsboro community, once an all-white area, began to evolve into a black area in the early 1900s. The railroad started to grow and professionals, laborers, educators started to move to Roanoke. People like Dr. Isaac Burrell, Lucy Addison and Virginia Lee all were from other parts of the country and moved to Roanoke. 

Due to segregation, African Americans had to depend on themselves to sustain one another because they could not receive service for basic needs anywhere else. A good number of people who grew up in this area always speak about the pride in seeing the creation of Burrell Memorial Hospital. Burrell was a prominent African American doctor who lived on Patton Avenue.  He was born in Amelia County in 1865. He moved to Roanoke after finishing school in 1893 and opened the first black pharmacy in Southwest Virginia on Gainsboro Road. He married a well-respected educator and community leader, Margaret Burnett. In 1914, a committee of doctors led by Burrell that included J.B. Claytor, Sr., J.S. Cooper, S.F. Williams, L.C. Downing and J.H. Roberts was in the process of creating and finding a location for a black hospital. Later that year Burrell became ill with gallstone issues. Due to segregation, he could not receive medical services from white hospitals so he was put in a boxcar and transported to D.C. He died while returning to Virginia.

In 1915, the remaining doctors on that committee started Burrell Memorial Hospital in honor of their friend and colleague. Here in the Star City an African American family created its own self-sustaining block of a home, pharmacy, clinic and service station. John B. Claytor and his wife Roberta produced eight children and with those children, they built businesses so that their children and father could work together. In 1923, Roberta’s father came from Bristol, and with the help of black men wanting to learn a trade he built a 23-room mansion on North Jefferson Street and Patton Avenue.  Local white businesses did not want to build a black man’s home, so Claytor’s father-in-law put the words Dr. Claytor in the sidewalk on the Patton Avenue side of the home so no would ever forget who owned that block. In the 1940s, Claytor, Sr., and his sons helped to build the Claytor Memorial Clinic in honor of his wife and their mother so they could work together. 

According to public records during the 20th century, the Gainsboro community had nearly 200 businesses over a period. These businesses consisted of beauty salons and barbershops, can companies, record stores, cleaners, a theater, nightclubs and the Hotel Dumas. Mack Barlow, Sr. and Mack Barlow, Jr. owned the Hotel Dumas. Speaking with Darthula Barlow Lash, youngest daughter of Mack Barlow, Jr.; the Hotel Dumas was the place to be if you wanted great food and if you wanted to meet the famous entertainers of that day, including Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. All of these great places were in Gainsboro. Many of these businesses were on Henry Street, the connection between the black community and Downtown Roanoke, even though African Americans did not go downtown much. 

In his book, The Times and Life on Henry Street, David Ramey, Sr., described the area as “A place where blacks could come and dine, dance, and relax; there was always something to do on Henry Street.” When people speak of Gainsboro, it’s always with two emotions – pride and anger.  Pride exists because of what the community offered people of color and anger due to what many see as being taken from them during the 1960s and 1970s. Now Henry Street is a block long consisting of two buildings that are not owned by any one person but rather corporations. 

We must always know and be proud of who we are as African Americans. We must always remember where we came from and where we must go.  John Henrik Clarke once said, “History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be.” My hope is after reading these words you will began to understand who and what helped to produce the great people we honor today. 

Other Articles From The August 2018 Issue