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Editorial: Painful history of race in Roanoke will no longer be hidden

Hidden in Plain Site

Roanoke Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd on Thursday announces that the Hidden in Plain Site project will go forward, as HiPS company staff and representatives from the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, City of Roanoke and the local Hidden in Plain Site committee look on.

Dontrese Brown, co-founder of Hidden In Plain Site, introduces a new public art multimedia history project that will explore untold stories about Roanoke's past.

We did not expect to return to the matter of the proposed Henrietta Lacks statue, or the internet project that accompanies it, quite so soon.

Yet Thursday, Roanoke Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd’s delight was contagious as she shared that the private fundraiser to pay for both is teetering at the brink of $100,000. Achieving the ultimate goal of $160,000 could happen within weeks, she said.

The internet project, “Roanoke Hidden Histories,” charged to the Richmond-based company Hidden in Plain Site, is already moving forward. The concept involves creating a virtual tour of sites significant to the history of Roanoke’s Black communities, modeled after the creators’ first project, which offers an online tour of places important to Richmond’s Black history.

Similar in spirit to Monticello’s heart-wrenching permanent exhibition, “The Life of Sally Hemings” — about the enslaved woman who, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, was mother to six children by Jefferson — “Hidden in Plain Site: Richmond” uses inventive interactive visuals and sound effects to take the viewer to places where the brutal slave trade was conducted, and places destroyed by urban renewal that in earlier decades were central to the city’s Black culture.

The presentation is beautiful, powerful, unshrinking and educational.

“There was a gap in terms of the history, of the voices that have been erased and the stories that we were traditionally told,” said Dontrese Brown, Hidden in Plain Site founder and CEO. “We felt like that if we can tell those stories then that would maybe close the gap.”

The project has received a $25,000 joint donation from the Carilion Clinic, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Institute at VTC. “We strongly believe that it’s important for health care providers to know the community in which they work,” said School of Medicine Associate Dean David Trinkle. “We are going to require that this website be visited by all incoming students” to make sure they understand the racial history of the Roanoke Valley.

All over the country, urban renewal and gentrification purged Black communities to make way for commercial development, with Roanoke’s own history an egregious example. The symbolism of staging the Hidden in Plain Site announcement at the Berglund Center might not have been readily apparent to those who aren’t aware that the site was once home to a residential Black neighborhood thrumming with life.

Berglund Center will be one of the landmarks highlighted in the Hidden in Plain Site tour of Roanoke. The others are Old Lick Cemetery, an African-American cemetery dug up to make way for Interstate 581; Burrell Memorial Hospital, for 50 years the only hospital in Roanoke that treated Black patients; Henry Street, once a thriving Black business district; and Dreamland, a swimming pool and dance hall that stood where Washington Park lies now. The tour will also tell the unusual and disquieting story of Roanoke-born Lacks, whose cell samples were instrumental in enabling decades of major medical breakthroughs.

“This documentary will not only be educational and insightful, but it will be very instrumental in healing a broken community,” White-Boyd said. In the process of uncovering and discussing the painful legacy of urban renewal, the project will help in healing past wounds and moving into the future with greater mutual understanding. “You can’t heal or move forward until you at least acknowledge that there were some pretty dreadful things that happened in this community.”

Roanoke has taken steps already toward that acknowledgement. Still, it’s long overdue.

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