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The Gainsboro History Project

African American Attorneys

A Legacy of Successful and Influential Attorneys

Gainsboro was home to multiple African American attorneys who were pioneers in the civil rights movement in Roanoke and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Their accomplishments were truly remarkable for men who were raised or lived in Roanoke, a small Southern city during the Jim Crow era of segregation.

  • Andrew Jackson Oliver was Roanoke’s first Black attorney. A practicing lawyer in West Virginia, he moved to Roanoke in 1889 and quickly became known for his professionalism, integrity, and ability to address racial matters.

At least three attorneys achieved civil rights victories that were significant nationally.

  • Oliver White Hill was raised in Roanoke on Gilmer Avenue and became a well-known leader in several major civil rights cases that eventually desegregated schools nationwide.
  • Edward R. Dudley, a neighbor of Oliver Hill and a lawyer, became the first Black diplomat appointed by a United States President to serve in a foreign country.
  • Belford. V. Lawson Jr. was raised in Roanoke and moved to Washington, DC, where he was an attorney and civil rights activist. He was the first black attorney to successfully argue a  U.S. Supreme Court Case (New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., 1938).

The early civil rights activists of Roanoke greatly influenced other leaders who successfully challenged segregation inequalities.

  • Reuben Lawson practiced law from an office in the Lawson Building on Gilmer Avenue. He is best known for his casework against school segregation in Roanoke and the region.
  • Clarence M. Dunnaville, Jr. was born in Roanoke and graduated from Lucy Addison High School. He became an accomplished lawyer and was a dedicated champion of civil rights. He practiced law in Richmond, Virginia with Oliver White Hill.

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