ROANOKE, Va. – A crucial way to understand systemic racism and its effects on generations is by taking a look at discriminatory housing practices, urban renewal and redlining.
Roanoke’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial stands just steps away from Roanoke’s Henry Street Historic District, which was once the cultural and business center of the predominantly Black Gainsboro neighborhood.
Over time, urban renewal projects and the practice of redlining fractured these communities. In fact, both practices are still impacting Black communities today.
Step back in time and dozens of Black businesses lined the streets in Roanoke, like the Dumas Hotel, which still stands but is no longer a hotel.
In the 1930s and 40s, you could have seen the likes of Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke or Nat King Cole passing through its doors.
Closeby sat another staple, The Strand Theatre, which had several names in its lifetime, such as the Lincoln Theater.
Fast forward to 2020 and high crime rates, empty houses and an overall lack of amenities are concerns for those who live in the area.
It’s an area marked by “a lot of abandoned buildings,” according to Quinton Leftwich, who lives on Harrison Avenue in Roanoke.
Patricia Hughes lives two houses down.
“A lot of people you know, it’s like, if I tell them I live on Harrison Avenue, they’re like, ‘Oh OK,‘ you know, like it’s a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing,” explained Hughes.
94-year-old Estelle McCadden lives not far away in the Melrose Rugby neighborhood.
“It’s been a nice quiet neighborhood until about the last 20 years. We’ve been going down in this area, for the last 20 years or more,” said McCadden, a community activist who has seen the neighborhood through many times, including the bad, which, especially recently, tends to outweigh the good.
“We have a lot of gunshots now, more than we’ve ever had. A lot of times, it’s just shots. I don’t know what’s going on. Whether they shoot and miss, that type of thing. Drugs are heavy,” said McCadden.
She has lived in her home since 1958, but the gunshots are only a small part of a much larger and older problem.
Her neighborhood, and others like it, were considered “hazardous” by the U.S. government back in the 1930s because of policies during that time, like redlining, which prevented investment in African-American neighborhoods.
“Redlining is the denial of investment to communities of color,” said LaDale Winling, a Virginia Tech historian who has reviewed the redline mapping of every city in the United States, including Roanoke.
Surveyors drew lines around every neighborhood. Green neighborhoods home to wealthy white people were labeled as “best.” Blue neighborhoods were “still desirable.” Yellow were “declining,” and red were “hazardous.”
“Appraisers would say because of Negro residents, this area is blighted. It’s already lost and it has no future,” said Winling.
What that means, is if a white man wanted to buy a house, he could get a loan from the bank. A Black man with similar income could not, so he had to get a high-risk high-interest loan, or no loan at all.
McCadden experienced that discrimination firsthand. She said banks shut her out and denied her a loan, even when her father, a minister, offered to make up what the bank said she needed to qualify.
Answering the question, do you think you were denied the loan because you were Black? McCadden’s response, “I know so.”
Once Black neighborhoods were declared “hazardous,” it didn’t matter if it was true or not, because once inside the red line, there was almost no way they could prosper.
McCadden eventually got her loan and moved in.
But Melrose Rugby and other similar neighborhoods had the deck stacked against them. Without investment, homeowners moved out, replaced by renters, who typically take less pride in their homes.
“Basically, when you’ve got renters, you’ve got a lot of people that don’t care,” said McCadden.
Redlined neighborhoods typically became the first to be destroyed to make way for urban renewal projects.
“Interstate highways are almost exclusively run through “C” and “D” grade neighborhoods because the federal government has basically already written them off,” explained Winling.
Redlining stayed in place until 50 years ago, but its effects are still here today. In fact, three out of four redlined neighborhoods are still poverty-stricken and are predominantly Black or Hispanic.
Census Bureau figures show that today, the average white family has 10 times the wealth of the average Black family.
“We have had to basically fight for ourselves for whatever we want and need,” said McCadden.
And fought she has. McCadden has traveled the country attending conferences on how to save or improve deteriorating neighborhoods.
In 2008, she was named Roanoke’s Citizen of the Year.
“I’ve been trying to think, so I’ve stopped thinking. What is it can we really, really do to help improve the neighborhood and to deter crime, and I haven’t come up with it.” McCadden said.
McCadden said things like supermarkets and doctor’s offices might entice homeowners back to the neighborhood and others like it.
Back on Harrison Avenue, Leftwich is discouraged.
“I feel the support of the government, but to where we can make a change, it’s just not there,” said Leftwich.
“What we need to help us to help ourselves. That’s some of the things, but people are moving out because there’s nothing over here for ‘em,” said McCadden.
Help may not be here now, but it’s something McCadden hopes the community will work toward in order to break the cycles that often put their community in a bad light.
Systemic racism also affects the criminal justice system, which has continued to face scrutiny and calls for reform.