Helen Davis

Vonda Wright (right) shows Helen Davis a sculptural installation on the grounds of the Gainsboro Library in 2009.

On my return from out of town, I opened my Roanoke Tribune and found a sad item on page six. A three-paragraph obituary said that Helen Davis had died on August 19.

Now a seat in Roanoke City Council chambers sits empty where Davis long held watch on behalf of Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood.

Most of their long years in the public eye, 91-year-old Helen and her surviving younger sister, Evelyn Bethel, exhibited the manners of the gentle women they truly were. But when defending their childhood neighborhood from what they saw as the ham-fisted manipulations of City Hall, the sisters turned fierce.

They had witnessed the dismantling of their once self-sufficient mostly black part of town — the expansive Northeast neighborhood, razed entirely decades ago to build Interstate 581, the city’s civic center, and a host of businesses, and the adjacent Gainsboro, which, like Northeast, lost churches, schools, stores and hundreds of its homes in the urban renewal era. Henry Street, the lively black commercial strip that had drawn visitors from around the state and nation to Gainsboro, fell to bulldozers and inattention.

Backed by federal funding after World War II, cities across the country began wiping out their oldest communities, usually peopled by minorities and immigrants, and replacing them with superhighways, modern plazas, and industrial zones. Thousands of people were displaced here, at least a million nationwide.

Evelyn and other family members nicknamed Helen “Pete” so many years ago they didn’t remember why. The two grew up on Patton Avenue and lived on Patton together in Helen’s last decades — on Patton Avenue Northeast, they were always quick to say. Their block is Patton’s last remaining one in the city’s northeast quadrant.

Often wearing colorful, matching track suits, sisters Davis and Bethel maintained their Gainsboro vigil from the council chamber’s back row, grumbling audibly like members of the House of Lords when council members did or said something the sisters found insensitive to black Roanokers, which was often.

Every council meeting for years, they were regulars among the public speakers. No project aimed at Gainsboro escaped their magnifying lens. Only in recent years, when health concerns made it hard for them to get around, did they stay away.

Council members and city bureaucrats, never wanting to seem to disrespect their elders, often reddened uncomfortably as the sisters critiqued their neighborhood plans like teachers marking up school papers.

The two executed grassroots advocacy in a robust stereo. They were picky; they were hard to please. They wanted a store, a senior center, places for the Gainsboro people who remained, though some in the city argued that the decimated population wasn’t big enough anymore to support such proposals. City leaders grew impatient with the women and as the years rolled on, said less and less in response to them.

Evelyn, president of the Historic Gainsboro Preservation District, was the one most often quoted in the media, but behind the scenes, Helen’s commentary was every bit as stinging as Evelyn’s, and often more so.

In a two-sister oral history recorded in 2007, Helen described the easy familiarity that used to exist in Gainsboro and Northeast. “…the City of Roanoke doesn’t appreciate the black history. As we say, back in those days, when we were coming up, we were close. Neighbors were close and everything. And we knew each other, and we could go to this place, go to that place. But we lost our connectivity, and most cities realized what urban renewal has done and are being more sensitive to the black community. But here in Roanoke, they just want to take, take, take, take.”

Developers circling Gainsboro, just north of the railroad tracks from downtown, long have been stymied by the likes of stalwarts like Helen Davis. Some say the big-money people are just waiting for the old folks like her to die and then they’ll take over.

But there is still time for Roanoke to do good things for Gainsboro. First, to apologize to Roanoke’s black citizens for urban renewal’s hateful treatment of them, beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1990s, then to truly honor Gainsboro’s history by treating it as what it has always been: a neighborhood, not an investment opportunity. That is all Helen Davis and Evelyn Bethel ever wanted.

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