One almost wants to say “Here we go again.” After a critical learning experience about Palm Springs, California, and Section 14 survivors that I wrote about two months ago, here is another … painfully similar story.

At the end of March, I was invited by an interfaith group of clergy in Roanoke, Virginia, to come down to a gathering about reparations. The group partnered with local congregations and Roanoke College to create a weekend of discussions about coming to grips with their city’s past.

At one time, Roanoke had a vibrant and strong African American neighborhood called Gainsboro. Within it there were homes, businesses, a theater and houses of worship. Between 1890 and 1940, Gainsboro became the predominate area where African Americans lived, worshipped and entertained.

Dr. Isaac D. Burrell died in 1914 after he was forced to travel to Washington, D.C., to have gallstone surgery. Credit: Wikipedia image from 1921 book

The popular Henry Street ran through the center of the Black community. “Henry Street was the heart of entertainment in Gainsboro,” according to an online tour of Historic Gainsboro, “with restaurants, hotels, and clubs that hosted musical icons like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, and Dizzie Gillespie.” 

Dr. Isaac David Burrell was one of six Black physicians who worked in Gainsboro. In 1914, he was working to found a hospital for Black patients but fell sick with gallstones. Because the white hospital in Roanoke and others nearby would not treat “Negroes,” Burrell’s family helped him board a train to Washington, D.C., for treatment to have the stones removed. He was forced to lay on a cot in the baggage car before arriving at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington. His condition had deteriorated, and he died shortly after surgery.  

The other Black physicians completed his work to start the hospital for “Negroes” and named it the Burrell Hospital for their fallen partner.

Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, formerly Burrell Memorial Hospital, in Roanoke, Virginia. Credit: visitroanokeva.com

In addition to a Black hospital, Roanoke also had Harrison High School for Black students. The school only went to the eighth grade – most Black families were not expected to have their children attend high school. If any Black child wanted to attend high school they had to leave home and move to another area, often over 50 miles away.

Another reality for Gainsboro is that section of Roanoke also housed the city dump. Even with the growth of the Black population, the city refused to move the dump. In 1963, a local pastor and president of the local NAACP threatened to have a “baby carriage” protest, where dozens of babies and their parents would block the city’s garbage trucks from entering the landfill area. A month later the dump was closed. 

During my March visit, an evening gathering at the college brought out hundreds of people and was followed by a panel discussion the next day with local leaders in politics and civic engagement. Nearly everyone wanted to hear about Evanston reparations. The college campus was abuzz with administrators, faculty and students. In addition, the attendance included an interfaith collection of congregations.

Roanoke clergy were especially encouraged to hear about efforts by Evanston interfaith clergy. At a debriefing session before I departed, one clergy member said, “I never would have believed that any town in America would have even considered funding a reparations program for more than a few dollars.” 

There is no other way of looking at our effort in Evanston. While not perfect, we are the first. While not pleasing to everyone, we have been placed at the epicenter for local reparations around the nation.

And now, Roanoke, Virginia is planning a reparations program advocates hope will be supported and funded by their faith community. San Francisco; New York; Amherst, Massachusetts; Asheville, North Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; Palm Springs, California; St. Paul, Minnesota – move over just a little. Another one is raising.

I’m grateful for Evanston and especially to Robin Rue Simmons, former Mayor Steve Hagerty and Mayor Daniel Biss, the City Council, clergy, the Fifth Ward and so many others. While we weren’t looking, history has been made. Roanoke, for one, is grateful.

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  1. Dr. Nabors’ visit was an encouraging and informative one for those of us involved in this work of reparations. His wealth of knowledge and practical experience was invaluable and inspiring. Evanston should be proud of the pioneering role they have played in the field. We have no misconceptions about the difficulty of the task before, but knowing it has already been done gives us hope. Thank you Dr. Nabors and Evanston!