If you’ve driven Brandon Avenue/Apperson Drive/Colorado Street, you probably think it’s a mighty fine road because it’s a straight, mostly four-lane shot to Salem.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an old road — it’s a logical place to put a street and it’s part of U.S. 11 and Lee Highway. But it wasn’t until the second decade of the 20th century that the present road replaced a mashup of dirt tracks that provided anything but a direct route.
The alternative was to cross the river at a ford to get to one of the roads on the north bank. The Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike, an animal-path-turned-Indian-trail-turned-highway predates both Roanoke and Salem.
Melrose Avenue was built during the late 19th century. Bits of Shenandoah Avenue existed before the 20th century, but even after the Veteran’s Administration Hospital was built in 1934, the road was so bad, historian Raymond Barnes reported, motorists often took the Turnpike, then doubled back to the hospital.
There was no real need for a route south of the river until residential development began and investors wanted a hard-surfaced road serving their properties.
In 1915, citizens petitioned for a “good macadamized road” beginning at Grandin Road, to connect with Cave Spring. They even offered to supplement state funds with their own money.
By 1925, the road was completed from Roanoke to Christiansburg, and, according to Barnes, was the longest stretch of paved road in the commonwealth.
The next document in the court file details how the road was constructed. The grading had begun before 1912, when the county Convict Force was transferred from this job to building Williamson Road instead — “due to bad weather.”
But shortly afterward, the supporters of the Roanoke-Salem Road wanted their workers and equipment back. The investors agreed to furnish 11 teams of horses, while the Convict Force would provide four, “for the purpose of hauling stone.” One subscriber offered to house the men at his expense.
The mention of the convicts was intriguing. I’d just read an article about how, after the Civil War, law enforcement agencies in the South literally held Black people in a state of slavery by arresting them for petty offenses, forcing them to work for free, and profiting by leasing them out to governments and private industry. These claims were confirmed by the right-leaning USA Today newspaper, which relied on sources ranging from the Constitution of the United States, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, to the contemporary writings of Frederick Douglass.
The race of the convicts wasn’t mentioned in any of the papers I saw, but it would be ridiculous to assume only white prisoners were made to do this arduous work. I realized that contrary to what I’d been taught, for nearly 100 years after emancipation, the work of building this country continued to be done with the forced, unpaid labor of its Black citizens.
I shared what I’d discovered with two local history Facebook pages, as something to think about when driving these roads. The first one is aimed at African-Americans, and while it garnered some likes, some sad emojis and a compelling story from a white woman who remembered seeing Black chain gangs as a child and being heartbroken about the way the prisoners were treated, it was obvious that my “revelation” wasn’t news to this audience.
On the other page, there were also likes and sad emojis, but for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, a handful of people took offense, calling my reliable sources “opinions,” insulting me personally, and insisting that unless I had photos of the actual people working on the project, my post was inaccurate and irrelevant. I gave as good as I got, but ended up deleting the post. There’s enough ugliness in the world already without me contributing to it, though I couldn’t help but observe that the so-called “cancel culture” is not limited to those on the left.
I love history for many reasons. Learning about those who have gone before us brings them to life and makes them human. History is also a puzzle. With the glaring exception of the American Civil War, it’s usually written by the victors, and teasing out the truth can be exhilarating. But mostly, it requires me to think critically, to research my sources carefully and to constantly question my own opinions and conclusions.