There's a push in Blacksburg to find old photographs and memories of an African-American neighborhood that has almost completely disappeared.
I heard about this story from the oldest barber in town, Mr. Charles Johnson, whose been cutting hair for nearly 50 years.
Monday afternoon, Mr. Johnson shuffled into the Odd Fellows Hall. He took his seat at the end of the table, a toothpick in his mouth as he watched and listened while others spoke.
The white clapboard Odd Fellows building is sandwiched in the oddest way between a fast food joint and a brand new Virginia Tech parking garage.
I learned this building was built back in the early 1900s and soon became the hangout spot for black folks all around.
"To me it reminded me of Harlem," said Joanne Young, "Because it was a gathering hole for everybody from Christiansburg and Radford. Everybody came here to dances.''
The town of Blacksburg bought the Odd Fellows Hall and an adjacent similar building a few years ago. The floors in the hall are all original.
Inside, a mix of black and white folks are brainstorming. They're hoping a combination of good old fashioned artifacts like photographs and period objects and cutting edge virtual tours, will bring in more interest about the history of what was known as Newtown.
Jessie Eaves used to visit Newtown when she was a little girl. Weekends and summers were often spent in this bustling area. "This was an old community' said Eaves, 'and it was well kept until I guess they started selling the homes and they started with the development and it sort of went downhill."
Black families and black friends once lived here, where today there are franchise restaurants and a mishmash of local businesses that dot the grounds. This is history, and Tom Sherman with the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation, which sponsored this gathering, says it should not be forgotten. "Time after time we hear people who don't know about Blacksburg history' said Sherman, '[they] don't know about 16 squares, about Newtown, know about Jackson street, know about the historic churches in town.''
So this group is asking the public for help. If there's a part of the Newtown history you would like to share, maybe donate or lend some personal items for others to see, these folks want to hear from you.
Joanne Young and Richard Wade are sister and brother. They grew up in Newtown and like every black child during that time in Blacksburg, they attended a segregated elementary school called "Blacksburg Graded School," today it's known as "Harding Avenue Elementary." Both Joanne and Richard stood outside the Odd Fellows Hall and chatted with me.
They told me about growing up in Newtown and having wonderful memories, in spite of the obvious racism that ran through some parts of town. They were quick to speak of wonderful summers, where families gathered around the Odd Fellows Hall and everyone watched every child. When a youngster stepped out of line said Wade, you could be sure another parent would spank that child, and no one called police and no one filed abuse charges. When the actual parent came home, that child would get it again. "That's what kept us in line," said Wade.
I asked if Joanne and Richard ever got into it with each other. "Well sure," said Joanne. “Who won?” I asked. "My mother!” Joanne shot back fast as if her mother were standing right there, "[Mother] didn't know who started it, but we all paid for it!'' Richard Wade standing next to his sister, shook his head and smiled, ''Everybody was at fault. Everybody got a piece of the action!"