If you want to understand the reason Roanoke’s neighborhoods look the way they do today, local organizer Katie Zawacki said, you first have to understand the history of the place.
That’s the whole history, she noted, not a version that has passed through a filter sometimes found in history books.
For Gainsboro, a neighborhood just north of downtown Roanoke, that story largely revolves around the urban renewal policies of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when land was taken for new development and a predominately black community was uprooted and displaced.
Zawacki said the remnants of those policies are still visible today.
“I think it’s really important that people who live outside the center of the city, that they understand why Roanoke — like many other cities — is so segregated,” Zawacki said. “This is something that just didn’t happen yesterday. I believe if you have a better understanding of history, maybe then you can make the change.”
Zawacki, chair of local nonprofit Points of Diversity, is helping organize a series of community meals through November.
The first, titled Re-Visiting Gainsboro, was held Sunday afternoon at the First Baptist Church on Jefferson Street.
Five more events are planned for a variety of communities around the Roanoke Valley.
The meetings are part of the Changing the Narrative project, organized by Virginia Humanities and co-funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The program aims to promote racial healing in Roanoke as well as in Norfolk, Richmond, Arlington, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville.
Points of Diversity received a $16,000 grant for the Roanoke program and will match with $16,000 from its own funds to pay for the events. All the meals will be free and open to the public.
More than 130 people attended Sunday’s local kickoff event.
Local historian Jordan Bell, 28, opened things up with a story from a couple of years ago, when his grandmother asked if they could visit her old childhood home on Rutherford Avenue.
They got in the car after church one day, but when they arrived, Bell said, they found an empty grass lot where the house once stood.
Bell told the crowd he later learned that his grandmother’s home, like many others in the Gainsboro neighborhood, was a victim of urban renewal.
That experience sent Bell down a rabbit hole of research that he still hasn’t climbed out of two years later. He said he learned that urban renewal in Roanoke led to the destruction of homes and businesses, as well as churches.
Buildings were razed to make room for roads, industrial expansion and projects such as the city’s civic center.
Bell grew up nearby, but he said he never learned that side of the city’s history.
“I should have known that all of this was going on,” Bell said. “We [African-Americans] are not writing the history books, so we can’t tell those stories, unfortunately. So I believe once we start to write the history books these stories will be told.”
Bell is in the process of creating a documentary with his research.
Smaller groups formed after Bell’s presentation on Sunday. Volunteers led discussions over full plates of food, guided by ground rules about honesty and openness.
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea was in attendance. His table focused on the story of 900 bodies that had been moved from a cemetery during the urban renewal era to make room for Interstate 581.
There are things that can’t be corrected, the table decided. But the formation of some sort of commission could help find opportunities for healing, like setting up a plaque to honor those buried in the lost cemetery.
“We can do something about that,” Lea said. “That’s a start.”
The next Changing the Narrative event will be held at the Roanoke College Colket Center on Sunday, April 7, at 4 p.m. It will focus on teenagers telling their stories.