Roanoke historian educates about Roanoke’s Black Wall Street, 100 years to the day after the Tulsa Massacre

Roanoke Valley News

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — While Tulsa’s Black Wall Street was destroyed by race-based violence, in Roanoke, historians say it was policy and legislation that devastated well-off Black businesses.

Henry Street used to be filled with dozens of Black-owned businesses, and now, there are historical markers and strategically placed photos in an effort to remember the history that has been torn down and repurposed.

According to Jordan Bell, a Roanoke Historian and tour guide, “You really don’t know where you can go if you don’t know where you come from, and it’s important that we tell the story to generation after generation to preserve this history, but not only to preserve this history and learn [from] it, but to actually build on the institution and learn [from] it.”

Many stops on his tour are just a set of steps, or abandoned old buildings, that didn’t qualify for Urban renewal.

“It started here in 1955, but it went up until the early 2000s with Urban Renewal Policies,” Bell continued.

In 1995, a number of notable Black-owned properties were destroyed under suspicious circumstances, including the Claytor Memorial Clinic and Gainsboro’s First Baptist Church. The fires occurred weeks apart.

Two local teens, ages 11 and 16, admitted to setting the church fire. Because they were minors, it is unclear if either actually faced punishment.

The devastation was just an echo of fires destroying the dreams of prominent Black families in the area. Years before the Claytor Mansion, another mansion with more than 20 rooms and multiple businesses — including an auto-shop, restaurant, and plumbing services — that sat on “Claytor Block” was destroyed by fire too.

Despite the repeated historical tragedy, Bell says the fires were not what caused Black businesses in the area to wither.

In Tulsa, it was bombs, you know guns, and murders, and things like that, but you know, here in Roanoke, it was through policies, and laws, and governments, and city council, and different community leaders that destroyed this area.”

Those on the tour say they were impacted by the similarities in historical devastation between the Black community in Roanoke and in Tulsa.

Chwanda McLaughlin, a former Roanoke City educator, recalled, “I did notice a lot of similarities, and I’m grateful to be able to do this tour.”

Bell plans to continue these tours of historical Gainsboro.

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