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Ramey’s memory portraits of Henry Street are faithful records of the past.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Every morning David Ramey sits down at his kitchen table and draws what’s on his mind.
He might be responding to a news story that bothers him, or re- creating a beautiful mountain view he saw years ago.
Or he might set down on paper one of his memories of Henry Street, back when its clubs were hopping and its businesses thrived, before that center of Roanoke’s black business community and its surrounding neighborhoods were demolished through urban renewal.
Roanoke County folk art collector Bill Jones said the historical importance of Ramey’s Henry Street drawings can’t be underestimated.
“There are no photographs that exist of the scenes that he remembers,” Jones said. “If he hadn’t done this, that history would be gone.”
“It’s a history that nobody else is telling right now, and most of the people that could tell it, they’re dead,” said Charlene Graves, a member of the Roanoke Arts Commission and past organizer of the Henry Street Heritage Festival.
With Graves’ help, Ramey, 74, self-published a book, “The Times and Life on Henry Street,” that records his memories of that lost era in words and pictures. In the book’s introduction he writes, “Anything I see, I can put to paper or canvas. So let me take you back in time ... to the glory days of Henry Street.”
Jones first learned of the book when Ramey gave a talk in March at the Salem Museum and Historical Society.
Jones collects folk art by black artists, but wasn’t familiar with Ramey before the talk. “It was outstanding. Standing room only,” he said. “He is probably the best memory-painting black or white artist I have ever seen.”
Born in Ridgeway, Ramey moved with his family to Roanoke in 1949. The house they lived in, about a block from Orange Avenue on Second Street in northeast Roanoke, was purchased through an urban renewal program, which clear ed the land to make way for commercial development. The Roanoke Civic Center stands there now.
He said he often heard his father speak about how what he was paid for his Second Street house was about half the value of the new house he had to purchase on Hanover Avenue . “My dad had to scramble to make up the difference.”
His father moved to Buffalo, N.Y., to work for General Motors “so he could pay the bills here in Roanoke.” Ramey briefly joined his father to seek job opportunities there before moving back.
“It was really rough,” he said. “I moved back home with my mother. Roanoke’s been my home since ’59.” For the past 30 years he’s lived in a two-story bungalow on Melrose Avenue, where his kitchen and garage serve as his studios.
Ramey’s interest in art began when he was 5 years old. “I used to watch my dad scribble on a piece of paper,” he said, and, imitating his father, started to teach himself how to draw. By the time he had art classes in school, “what they were teaching me, I already knew.”
In high school, Ramey won art contests and aspired to be an art teacher, but that career track never materialized. He married and had children, moving from house to house. He and his wife divorced while still young. “We still get along. We’re friends and all,” he said.
He held a number of jobs, including stints for the town of Vinton and the Roanoke airport, before Norfolk and Western Railway hired him in 1974.
“When there was not much to do, on my lunch break or spare time, I would draw pictures.” Sometimes his co-workers would ask him to make a picture depicting something funny that happened on the job that day, and they’d make copies to share among themselves.
He tells a story about how a superintendent who admired his artwork once offered him a job as an artist and drafter for the railroad. But to take the position, he had to move to Atlanta, and he couldn’t stand the thought of living so far from his children and grandchildren. “The love of my family means a lot more than money.”
Nor did he like the thought of working in an office. “Being inside is too much like being caged up.”
Promoted to conductor, he stayed with the railroad in Roanoke until he retired in 1996.
House full of art
He continued to draw and paint, his house filling up with artwork. “I’ve got close to 900, maybe 1,000,” he said.
It takes him about a week to finish a drawing, “I do the brick one day, then I come back and color,” using paint, pastel or crayon. “Then if there’s people involved I put the people in.”
Sometimes, upset by news stories of the death of children — such as JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty pageant queen whose 1996 killing remains unsolved, or Aveion Lewis, a 2-year-old Roanoke boy murdered in 2010 by his mother and stepfather — he draws a portrait of the child ascending into heaven, or cradled in the arms of Jesus.
From that early marriage and other relationships, Ramey has six children, 11 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. “I feel like every child should have a chance,” he said.
After he retired, Ramey rode across the country with a truck driver friend. He’s more than once drawn from memory a landscape that they passed in Colorado, a clear pool shimmering at the foot of a mountain.
Looking over one of those renditions, he said wistfully, “I would love to go down there and fish.” Yet he’s certain he won’t get to go back. “That’s just a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a poor man.”
The Arby’s gallery
Ramey’s never had a gallery to showcase his work — unless you count the Arby’s on Williamson Road across from Happy’s Flea Market. At one time, Ramey’s nephew managed the restaurant, and needed pictures to fill the empty spaces on the walls.
Like much of Ramey’s art, the drawings hanging there forms a record of Roanoke before urban renewal, showing lost landmarks such as the Virginia Theater.
There are also portrayals of familiar Roanoke icons such as the Hotel Roanoke, the Gainsboro Library, St. Andrew’s Catholic Church and the Norfolk & Western J-Class 611 steam engine.
“We do get comments on the artwork,” said Chris Ayers, the restaurant’s general manager. “They’re very popular pictures.”
Ramey has sold a few paintings over the years, but he isn’t much known outside of Roanoke, Jones, the collector, said.
Graves encountered Ramey about eight years ago when she was organizing an event about Henry Street for the Roanoke Chapter of The Links Inc., a national community volunteer organization. Her project recruited artist from Lynchburg, Martinsville and Danville to commemorate Henry Street’s legacy. Yet Ramey had already done that on his own.
“I became enamored of his work,” she said . “I saw pictures of things in Henry Street that I could not find pictures of in reality.”
Later she helped research and proofread his book .
“I’m trying to get him to be more of a storyteller,” she said. At the talk at the Salem Museum, she prompted him to share anecdotes.
“I’m not good at talking,” Ramey said.
Yet his book is full of humorous stories.
Ramey recounts stealing loose change from a bowl on the kitchen table and sneaking out of the house when he was 10 years old to buy a hot dog with extra chili at the Atlantic Sandwich Shop, across from the Dumas Hotel — returning to find his father had shut and locked the door he’d propped open. He had to wake his parents to get back in, fully expecting a “butt-whipping.”
“I never sneaked out of the house any more,” he wrote. “However, that hot dog was one of the best I ever had.”
Ramey said he’s sold about 250 copies of the $30 spiral-bound book, many to people from out of town who have Henry Street connections. Tuesday, he said he had just mailed a copy to Albuquerque, N.M.
He addresses urban renewal on the next to last page, the nostalgic tone giving way to anger. He writes, “Maybe that was the whole problem. Black business was too close to downtown.”
The neighborhood held grocery stores, doctor’s offices and other businesses brought to life in Ramey’s book. “I always just thought it was a bad deal for the black society. … I just feel like that they was kind of robbed.”
He’s working on a second book of stories and pictures, this time about the neighborhoods just north of Henry Street. He doesn’t want those times he remembers to be forgotten.
“I have a sugar problem, and my eyes are not as good as they once were,” he wrote in his book, “but I will use my skills as long as I can see.”
For more information on “The Times and Life on Henry Street,” or to purchase a copy, call David Ramey at 355-7458.
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