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The Gainsboro History Project

Urban Renewal Destroyed African American Life

Urban renewal efforts in Roanoke resulted in the upheaval and destruction of tightly-knit, established neighborhoods in Northeast and Gainsboro. It not only destroyed landmark buildings, businesses, homes, and streets, it also devastated the social and cultural network of the black community and eliminated special places for learning, business, entertainment, and worship. Urban renewal left many people worse off financially and with a reduced social support network. The legacy of urban renewal still resonates as stinging and extremely painful.

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove described the experience of displacement and loss of interconnectedness as “root shock” which she defines as the “traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.” She asserts that “the experience of root shock does not end with emergency treatment, but will stay with the individual for a lifetime”. — Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock (2004),  p.11-12.

Gainsboro Personal Experiences 

“When I was a kid I dreamed of having a business on Henry Street, but my life didn’t turn out that way. I became a school principal instead. But I felt that there was something missing, so in 1986, I left my job and opened my counseling business here on Henry Street…Sometimes, I just stand here and the tears come down, thinking about what used to be…houses not buildings, (we had) neon not vacant lots, neighborhood not emptiness….Henry Street was a great street, stores, clubs, neon” —Richard Chubb in Fullilove, M. T., Root Shock (2004), p. 21-22, p.84

Zenobia ‘Zee’ Ferguson wanted renewal to begin on Gainsboro’s innermost streets first and work outward…Instead, she said, the opposite happened. An industrial park and Innkeeper motel were built on Gainsboro’s northeastern edge, and the Coca-Cola bottling plant took over the southwestern corner. The good things for the people and their neighborhood life never came…[she said] “There was no building onto what we already had. It was all destroyed and left void. There’s no store an elderly person could walk to…It was left barren.” — Mary Bishop, Street by Street (1995), p. 7.

In 2001, Dr. Walter Claytor filed suit against the Roanoke Housing Authority. He claimed the 20-year threat of eminent domain and condemnation of his property adversely affected his ability to secure rental tenants or sell the property. “They were boarding up houses and tearing them down, and the neighborhood just went down,” Claytor testified. “The word was out at that time that they were going to clear the neighborhood, and people were leaving. You just couldn’t find tenants.” Seeking $536,000 in lost revenue over two decades, he was awarded $281,590 in 2006. — Rex Bowman, Eminent Domain Ruling Favors Virginia Family (2006).

Commonwealth Urban Renewal Project Experiences

“In 1956 and 1957, the city burned more than 100 homes. It was the cheapest way to get rid of them, two or three at a time. Firefighters were taught about fire by torching those houses and watching them burn. ‘It was like looking at a war movie,’ said the Rev. Ivory Morton, who watched the burnings as a boy.” — Mary Bishop, Street by Street (1995), p.3

“Kathleen Ross, secretary at Gilmer Elementary School, which was itself destroyed in the process, refused to move from her house not far from Interstate 581. ‘I told them that I would be willing to sell it if they would give me a decent price.’ she said years later. So her house remained there, surrounded by the civic center’s parking lot, until 1981, when she at last got a price she considered worthy.” —Matt Chittum, Sold Out (2019)

An aerial photo of the Civic Center with 3 houses visibly still standing with the parking lot built around them
Roanoke Civic Center. Note: Three houses standing in the parking lot, to the left. Courtesy Roanoke Public Libraries.

Personal Experiences about Kimball Urban Renewal Project

“Many houses were in terrible shape, but Northeast was a place where women kept their eyes on one another’s children from kitchen windows, where neighbors shared sweet potatoes from their gardens, and shared even a common backyard water spigot.” — Mary Bishop, Street by Street (1995), p. 3

“When urban renewal came along, [John] Eure said few white leaders questioned it. ‘There was not a sensitivity…to the fact that we were destroying part of our community, and our history. When people, white people, began to be aware of what was happening and what it was doing to some of our citizens, and began to say something about it, they weren’t very popular. Progress was the name of the game.’” — Mary Bishop, Street by Street (1995), p. 3

“Charles Meadows had one of the best jobs a black man could find in Roanoke: he worked for the railroad…He and his wife Carrie Dickerson Meadows brought up five children at 604 Patton Avenue, N.E. They were in the house 31 years. Meadows paid off his mortgage and made $12,000 in improvements in the four-bedroom house. Altogether, he had $20,000 invested in it. When the city forced him out in 1968, it gave him $7,800, plus $2,500 to help him relocate. Someone with the city told him his appraisal was low because of a rundown house next door. Now, the land belongs to Roanoke Gas Co. Its buildings and eight acres are assessed at $2 million, the land at $67,000 an acre.” — Mary Bishop, Street by Street (1995), p. 4

How Can We Promote Healing and Progressive Action? 

In her book, Root Shock, Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove suggests that “we get to know one another…and ask one another ‘what do you want for the future?’” She further writes, “if illness simmers in the inner city, invisible to white Americans, the number of cases will reach levels and will extend over territory unimaginable had the illness been seen and managed…Thus, we learn again, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, what our ancestors figured out during the American Revolution: ‘We can hang together, or we can hang separately.’” She asks, “what would happen if our society grappled with the calamity of urban renewal? How might past injustice be remedied? How might the injuries to the city be rectified? How might we create the dwelling places we all long for?” (Fullilove, 2016, p. 238-239).

See Also


Bishop, M. (n.d.). Racial remapping: How city leaders bulldozed Black neighborhoods.

Bishop, M. (1995, Jan. 29). Street by street, block by block: How urban renewal uprooted black Roanoke. Roanoke Times.

Bowman, R. (2006, Jan. 1) Eminent domain ruling favors Virginia family. The Heartland Institute.

Chittum, M. (2019, May). Sold out, Roanoke Civic Center,  Roanoke, Virginia.  Discover History & Heritage Magazine. The Roanoke Times.

Fullilove, M. T. (2016) Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It. (2nd edition) New Village Press.