Walking tour of Roanoke’s ‘Black Wall Street’ capitalizes on growing Juneteenth energy

Organizer Jordan Bell hopes people continue to ask questions and challenge the status quo

ROANOKE, Va. – About a hundred people saw history on foot through Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood on this Juneteenth 2020.

The neighborhood was the epicenter of black culture in Roanoke before urban renewal dismantled it, and organizer Jordan Bell said there’s an energy in the community right now that he doesn’t want to go to waste.

Bell has spent the last few months learning everything there is to know about the neighborhood. Much of now is hallmarked by boarded up buildings and empty lots, but it was all once part of a thriving neighborhood.

“It used to be our Black Wall Street, Black Wall Street is getting a lot of attention in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the past couple of months, but Roanoke had its own Black Wall Street and that was Gainsboro, Roanoke,” Bell said.

As more people than ever are talking about race in America and systemic racism, Bell said he wanted to expose a new group of people to a history they might not have known about. Katie Trozzo is an example of that. She’s lived in Roanoke for less than five years, but she didn’t know much about Gainsboro and was hungry to learn more, especially with everything going on in America right now.

“Having it offered today, and especially on Juneteenth, I was like, ‘Yes, this is the way I want to celebrate,‘ I want to learn history and do my part in terms of understanding what really happened,” Trozzo said.

Urban renewal happened, primarily to build the Roanoke Civic Center and Interstate 581 decimated the neighborhood back in the 60s. Bell led the group to sites like where the Claytor Mansion was, shared the stories of Henry Street, stopped by Oliver Hill’s house and more.

Brian Spencer brought his family out to learn more and was happy to see faces that haven’t historically been part of the conversation.

“It’s extremely important, conversations need to happen. There’s no progress without coming to the table and respecting other points of view first,” Spencer said.

And that’s what we saw Friday, crossing color and generations. Bell hopes by showing off what the neighborhood used to be, people will continue to ask questions, critically think and challenge the status quo.

“We have to build on what was before us in order to make a better future,” Bell said. “For our children coming up, generations coming up, our ancestors did that for us so it’s on us to be able to do that for future generations.”

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