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Roanoke Higher Education Center plaza honors historic Gainsboro neighborhood

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The Gainsboro neighborhood’s historic significance to Roanoke was honored Wednesday during dedication of a walkway across the Roanoke Higher Education Center campus.

Community leaders, elected officials, university representatives, students and other neighborhood residents totaling more than 100 people gathered for a plaza dedication ceremony Wednesday afternoon, introduced by Kay Dunkley, executive director of the Roanoke Higher Education Center.

“This is a courtyard that we envisioned … for our students to eat, to study and to visit,” Dunkley said. “It’s also most importantly an opportunity for us to recognize the rich history of the Gainsboro community.”

Etched into black granite markers along a new brick walkway stretching between the center’s main building and its Claude Moore Education Complex, pedestrians can read details of Roanoke’s historic Gainsboro neighborhood, said Carla James, senior director of academic & student services for the center.

“This community was once a thriving area for African Americans, and contributed greatly to the economic vitality of Roanoke,” James said. “You will observe gray engravings on the granite markers … that provide highlights of the history surrounding the Gainsboro community from 1835 to 1970.”

In addition to history inscribed on the sidewalk, there is also a mobile phone application and a Gainsboro History Project website including more detail and multimedia elements, to enrich recollections of the neighborhood’s past, James said. It’s an ongoing, dynamic project, she said, thanking neighborhood historians, other volunteers and individuals for their contributions.

“We look forward to hearing from you if you have photographs or stories to add, or even if you feel we overlooked an important event or detail,” James said. “Just as we are committed to this community, we remain committed to the Gainsboro History Project and its ongoing development and enhancements.”

Area legislators, including Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who is also chairman of the center’s board, helped secure $448,000 in state funding to design and construct the plot, which was a roughly 10,000-square-foot parking lot previously owned by the city.

“If you want to know the history of Roanoke, take a look at that app as well, because you can only get so much on a granite slate,” Edwards said. “Thank you for honoring the history of Roanoke. This is our history, and I appreciate all the work that so many of you have done.”

Discussions for the plaza began in 2018, with delays caused by scarce construction materials, Dunkley said. The plaza in 2019 stirred controversy because Gainsboro neighborhood advocates and residents at the time said they were not included in project planning.

Appalachian Power Co. on Wednesday provided scholarships totaling $13,500 to five area students who are pursuing higher education to kick-start or further their careers, as presented by Larry Jackson, AEP director for external affairs.

“We all know how difficult it is for students to come up with finances necessary to complete a degree or earn a certificate,” Jackson said. “All of the organizations that are working to help these students achieve their dreams, that is what the Roanoke Higher Ed Center is all about.”

Bestowals to those five students marked the higher education center’s first scholarship opportunity, Dunkley said.

“Your future is very bright,” Dunkley said. “We’re going to play just a really, really small role in helping you reach the career in the program and the degree that you want.”

The Roanoke Higher Education Center, located at 108 N. Jefferson St., opened in 2000 and now offers to the community more than 200 programs of study, from job training to postgraduate studies through member universities, according to its website.

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea said he always feels a sense of pride whenever he spends time in the historic Gainsboro neighborhood. The higher education center’s presence here opens new possibilities for upcoming generations, he said.

“The center is unique in the number and types of organizations that have joined forces in one location to expand access to educational opportunities at every level,” Lea said. “Citizens of this region are able to earn a GED, or receive an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree, or gain access to workforce certifications and endorsements. That’s a big deal.”

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Luke Weir covers higher education and state government. He can be reached at (540) 566-8917 or luke.weir@roanoke.com

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