As part of Black History Month, Gov. Ralph Northam has announced a contest for Virginians —particularly students — to nominate suggestions for new historical markers that pertain to the state’s African-American history.
There’s no doubt that Virginia’s official telling of history is not exactly a complete one. Here’s a good opportunity to correct that. The deadline to make nominations is March 6. You can find more here: https://www.education.virginia.gov/bhm-marker-contest/.
In recent years, Roanoke has erected two historical markers that recognize African-Americans. One on Gilmer Avenue points out the boyhood home of Oliver Hill, the famed civil rights lawyer whose cases include one of those that formed part of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that brought down segregation. Another on Henry Street recognizes Oscar Micheaux, the nation’s foremost African-American filmmaker in the early days of movie-making. For a time in the 1920s, Micheaux had his office in Roanoke and made several of his films here.
Which markers are we missing, though? Here are some suggestions:
1. Margie Jumper. She did the same thing Rosa Parks did, just nine years before and without the same public attention. In 1946, Jumper was a young woman working for a family in Raleigh Court. She was riding a streetcar home after a day’s work when a white man wanted her seat. She refused. The police were called. Jumper was arrested, and sat in jail for hours until she was noticed by a black lawyer, who advised her to just plead guilty and pay the fine. Had things played out differently, perhaps that part of the civil rights movement would have begun in Roanoke. Late in life, Jumper was honored by the NAACP for her willingness to stand up to segregation and was hailed as “a legend.” It’s unclear exactly where a marker to Jumper should be erected, but surely she deserves recognition somewhere. The civil rights movement did not begin fully-formed in the 1950s; it had a long series of antecedents, of which Jumper’s case was one.
2. Roanoke’s unusual integration. Two hours south in Greensboro, North Carolina there was the famous lunch counter sit-in. In Danville, there was violence. Roanoke’s integration took place much more quietly, and uniquely. A secret “biracial committee” of white business leaders and their black counterparts got together and orchestrated which restaurants would integrate and when and how. The first of those was the Woolworth’s on Campbell Avenue on Aug. 27, 1960. Roanoke’s “top-down” integration seems worthy of historical notice.
3. Victory Stadium’s role in integration. The since-demolished stadium played a role in the civil rights movement in Roanoke — one that even brought in the National Football League. In 1961, the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers were scheduled to play a pre-season game there. Both teams were integrated. The stadium was not. The NAACP sued the city; city leaders said that state law required segregation. In response, the NAACP urged black players to boycott the game. The Steelers coach polled his players; they refused to cross a picket line. The Colts followed suit. Team representatives huddled with Roanoke officials and apparently came to what would be a classic Roanoke solution: Look the other way and avoid confrontation. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle issued a statement, calling segregation “repugnant” but said the game would go forward because it would benefit the city’s sandlot teams that would allow black teams to take the field. Meanwhile, civil rights activists clandestinely bought tickets in the stadium’s white section — and simply showed up. So did firefighters with hoses, the National Guard, and the FBI. But nothing happened, except for the Steelers winning the game 24-20. The Pittsburgh Courier declared that the Steelers had “held Jim Crow for downs.”
4. Roanoke’s urban renewal. This would be more of a memorial and not a celebration. Starting in 1955, Roanoke bulldozed hundreds of homes, businesses and churches in the city’s African-American community — all in the now-discredited name of “urban renewal.” Bodies from the Old Lick Cemetery were disinterred and reburied in a mass grave at Coyner Springs. The political repercussions of that era still echo in the city’s politics. Witness the recent controversy over something that seems innocuous to those who don’t know the back story — the recent sale of a city-owned parking lot to the Higher Education Center. Whether the state erects a historical marker or not, the city could do a lot on its own to acknowledge what happened during that era.
5. Noel Taylor. Roanoke thinks of Taylor as the city’s first black mayor, and that’s true. What we often forget is that he was also the first African-American in the state (at least since Reconstruction, a period where official histories often remain silent). That seems worthy of official recognition. In 1975, Taylor, at the time vice mayor, became mayor when the incumbent died. Then in 1976 he was elected mayor in his own right. That same day Lawrence Davies was elected mayor in Fredericksburg. If you’re parsing facts, Taylor was the state’s first black mayor; together he and Davies were the first African-Americans elected mayor in the state. Remember both through markers.
6. Norvel Lee. The examples above are all from Roanoke, but history — white or black — hardly stops at the city limits. Lee was an Olympian, representing the U.S. as a boxer in both the 1948 London games and the 1952 Helsinki games, where he won a gold model. He also grew up in Botetourt County, near Eagle Rock. Many at the time likened him to the great Joe Louis. If his name is unfamiliar, it’s only became Lee refused to turn pro. Instead he pursued his education at Howard University — and a military career that saw him retire as lieutenant colonel. Lee also figured in a civil rights case of some significance. Arrested in 1949 for sitting in the whites-only section of a passenger train in Alleghany County, he took the case to the Virginia Supreme Court — and won.
7. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Not to be confused with his son, who became a congressman and ended his career in disgrace. Powell Sr. did no such thing. He was born in Franklin County in 1865, and went on to lead a church in Harlem that at one time was said to have been the largest congregation in the country. He also helped found the National Urban League. He is the famous native son that Franklin County doesn’t recognize — not yet anyway.
So who else?