Roanoke man highlights Gainsboro’s past to inspire its future

Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 5:28 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Roanoke City’s Black history is rich and unique. And for one Roanoke man, it’s personal. That’s why he’s taking a unique approach to preserve it.

If you drive past the Gainsboro neighborhood on a fair weather day, you might catch Jordan Bell at work.

”And so now we’re walking to Henry Street,” said the 31-year-old heading into a crosswalk.

He’s on a mission to patch up the spaces between the past and the present.

“It kind of gives you a sense of, I have a responsibility to do something for my neighborhood.”

The northwest Roanoke native grew up around church pews and kitchen tables where storytellers weaved him a tapestry of a bygone era.

“My mother’s family grew up in the Gainsboro area on a street that’s now called Rutherford Avenue,” he said. “But when my grandmother lived there, it was called Seventh Avenue.”

Click here for other stories on Black History Month

The matriarchs in the family told him stories about life in a vibrant, safe and successful community.

“The thing that really stuck out to me was, it was always a smile on their face when they would tell those stories,” said Bell.

Bell said his great grandmother lived in a home with her mother. She was born in 1905. She lived in that Seventh Avenue home with her five brothers and raised her three children there.

“They grew up going to the schools in Gainsboro, going to Henry Street, the Claytor Clinic, Burrell Memorial Hospital all the areas that you know everyone now knows today,” he said.

Bell added his grandmother was a classmate of civil rights litigator Oliver Hill, who also lived in Gainsboro. Hill won his first civil rights case in 1940. By the early ‘50s, he and other attorneys were fighting segregation in Prince Edward County, one of the cases that would lead them to the Supreme Court and the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

“My grandmother passed away in July of last year. And every time she would tell a story, she was just always so excited and proud,” said Bell.

One day after church a few years ago, Bell said he asked his aunt and grandmother to take him to that childhood home on Seventh Avenue. When they arrived, there was nothing but an empty lot.

“And when I asked, well, ‘Where’s your home?’ And my aunt said, ‘Urban renewal took it,’” Bell said. “And so that is what sparked, Okay, well what’s urban renewal?”

Urban renewal was a program of the ‘50s and ‘60s meant to clear blighted neighborhoods across the United States for economic development. It included the use of eminent domain.

The publisher of the Black-owned and run newspaper the Roanoke Tribune recalled having her office bulldozed by the City.

Not all promises made through urban renewal were kept and the effort was controversial, scattering what was once a tightly knit community.

In the era of Jim Crow, this neighborhood had had its own clinic, service station, grocery store and newspaper, not to mention the hundreds of Black-owned businesses and entertainment venues on Henry Street.

“You know, they said James Brown and Little Richard and Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, and all of those people were on Henry Street,” he said.

The neighborhood ceased to be the vibrant place it had once been and the Gainsboro of Bell’s upbringing looked nothing like what his elders described.

It was the mentorship and storytelling of a man named Richard Chubb that eventually inspired Bell. Chubb was the last principal at Harrison Elementary School, which was the first Black high school in Roanoke. Chubb’s stories further sparked Bell’s desire to know more about not only Gainsboro’s past, but a deeply personal history as well.

“And so that’s kind of what put me on this path of learning as much as I can, sharing it as much as I can,” he said, “but actually doing something to see this neighborhood get back to what it used to be.”

One day, Bell decided to take his daughter for a walk, to show her all of the places her great-grandmother had told her about. He said then 9-year-old Zariaya left her cell phone behind and went on a tour with her dad.

He showed her the old clinic, the Dumas hotel, and offices of prominent local leaders. And he introduced her to the doctors, lawyers, and civil rights leaders who once called this neighborhood home.

“I hope that she understands that she comes from greatness, that she never questions who she is,” Bell said. “And that she never is looking for answers on who she is because of where she comes from.”

That tour of the neighborhood kicked off an initiative to host tours for community members. Zariaya led the first tour and it grew from there.

“This street right here, this is the street we’re currently on called Henry Street.”

Now Bell regularly hosts tours for community groups and schoolchildren, showing them the old buildings or empty lots which once held the stories of the thriving neighborhood of Gainsboro’s past.

Bell found himself drawn deeper into the history of historic Gainsboro, not just by a desire for knowledge, but a desire for change. He began blending those kitchen table talks with research.

“People always say, Jordan, you know, 31 years old, you’re young, why are you sitting in the library all day?” he said, chucking. “It’s - I enjoy doing it. So they say, you know, what you enjoy doing is what you’re supposed to be doing. And I think that’s why I continue to do it.”

His efforts to connect the community to its past became a way to galvanize it for the future.

Bell envisions a Gainesboro with no vacant lots, abandoned houses, and a self-sustaining community. He’s working on a documentary called Gainsboro Revisited, to share the oral histories of community members who hold precious tales of the past.

“Come back, you know, and help out in trying to figure out what can be done in Gainsborough to bring it back to the vibrancy that so many people remember, of this community.”

From one avenue to the next, from one story to another, Bell is laying a foundation for the future, built atop a bedrock of remembrance.

“This kind of takes over my life of trying to figure out what to do and Gainsborough and learn as much as I can,” he said. “But without Gainsboro, I wouldn’t be the man that I am today.”

Anyone is invited to join Bell on a community walk, and your next chance is coming up soon.

He’s hosting the next walk February 25 at 1 p.m. All participants will meet at the Higher Ed Building.

Bell will also be at the “Celebrating Gainsboro” event Wednesday, February 15 at the Roanoke Higher Education Center from 11:30 to 1.

You can learn more about Gainsboro through the Gainsboro History Project.