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Editorial: Documenting the Roanoke Valley's local history before it fades

Rugby-Melrose pillar

One of the pillars that serves as a gateway to the Rugby-Melrose neighborhood in Northwest Roanoke has collapsed. It dates back to 1916.

Every year, the Roanoke Valley loses a little bit more of its past.

A dramatic recent example involved the revelation that until 2019, the home of a historical figure much discussed of late in the Star City was still standing.

Henrietta Lacks, born in Roanoke in 1920, would end up posthumously playing a crucial role in the development of modern medicine and biotechnology. A sample of her cancer cells, taken when she was undergoing treatment in Baltimore in 1951, proved able to survive and replicate outside her body. HeLa cells, as they were called, enabled decades of important scientific breakthroughs.

The Harrison Museum of African American Culture in Roanoke is the fiscal agent for a fundraiser that will pay to put a statue of Lacks in the downtown plaza that bears her name.

A home that Lacks lived in had stood for 95 years at what’s now 1102 Norfolk Ave. S.W., but not long after Roanoke historian Nelson Harris determined the connection, the house was leveled. City officials who had marked the dwelling for demolition did not become aware of the link to Lacks until after the house was long gone. The question as to whether the house could have been saved will never be answered.

This sort of thing is why the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation’s annual list of endangered historical sites can be so important. Whether or not they beget any successful preservation efforts, they can at very least put the choice before the public’s eye before it’s too late to act.

In the case of at least one of the four sites that appear on the Foundation’s 2022 list of endangered sites, the organization is not even advocating for a preservation effort.

What can’t be saved

The Schrader Street log house in Salem, built in about 1830, is believed to be all that remains of the community of Dingledale, associated with German immigrant Johannes Dingledine, a farmer and banker. Dingledale lay about where Lynchburg Turnpike crosses Mason Creek and Dingledine’s farm reportedly encompassed what’s now Lakeside Plaza. Dingledale apparently once boasted a sawmill, tavern and schoolhouse.

The log house no longer looks like a log house, as it has additions built onto it and is covered with siding. Historians found records of the other Dingledale buildings inside the log house. The foundation deems the structure beyond repair because of neglect and the effects of vagrancy, and wants to see that what remains gets fully documented before this last vestige from that 18th century community gets demolished as a safety hazard.

The list also calls attention to a community that’s already lost — Slate Hill, a Black community that clustered along Elm View Road, which lies across the street from Tanglewood Mall and just southwest of the South Peak condominiums. From that community, Slate Hill Baptist Church remains, and three cemeteries which thankfully have been left undisturbed. The Slate Hill and nearby Pinkard Court communities received much the same treatment as the Gainsboro and Henry Street communities in Roanoke — gutted by policies of urban renewal and redevelopment — though even less is known about their histories. The foundation included the Slate Hill community as an example of social injustice and as a plea that the stories from that neighborhood should not be forgotten.

What can be saved

A structure that’s still standing and that perhaps more can be done for is the 1938 Tudor Revival house in the 900 block of Madison Avenue Northwest that was once home to Roanoke’s first Black dentist, Harry T. Penn. He was a groundbreaker in many ways. In 1942, he became the first Black candidate to run for the Roanoke City Council. He did not win, but in 1948, he was appointed to the Roanoke School Board, making him the first Black person to serve on a school board anywhere in the American South. He also served as president and chairman of Burrell Memorial Hospital, the historic Black medical center in Gainsboro, and he was a president of the National Dental Association.

His life ended tragically — he killed himself in 1963 after a failed business venture jeopardized his family’s finances. Nonetheless, his achievements cast much longer shadows.

Though vacant and neglected, Penn’s house still possesses vestiges of its stately beauty. Whatever the fate of the house might be, at very least a historical marker could be apropos

The fourth item on the list comes with the potential for an optimistic conclusion.

The pillars that flank 11th Street between Mercer and Staunton avenues in northwest Roanoke serve as the gateways to the Rugby-Melrose neighborhood. When stonemason Price Francisco built these pillars for the Rugby Land Co. in 1916, he added a pair of whimsical gargoyles that have served as the neighborhood’s unofficial mascots.

By the early 2010s, the pillars and critters were in rough shape and an effort to repair them has only delayed their dissolution. One of the pillars has collapsed, its gargoyle broken. City officials have notified the foundation that they plan to have the pillar repaired. We hope so, as the gargoyles are rather adorable.

We live in an era of shortened attention spans, where events that happened just last week can be dismissed as old news and irrelevant. Yet the turbulence of our times requires a grasp of history to understand how we got where we are, and how we can move forward toward positive achievements and mutual understanding.

We should take pains to know our heritage before the evidence of its existence falls before the bulldozer.

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