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As Roanoke moves on from centuries past toward a new identity as a destination metro, it’s important to not only look back at our glorious roots, but also to work to assure those roots continue to yield fruit of a kind that made us a national mecca back then as well.
In the three years I’ve called Roanoke home, I have felt a surging momentum in the Star City’s reshaping toward becoming a destination metropolis. Our appeal to millennials grows as our downtown and our neighborhoods add layers of urban complexity, niche living and craft brews, while holding fast to our old glory; that of being a “great place to raise a family.” With recent head nods from the likes of the Boston Globe, we Roanokers gain confidence in our transformation. We are invigorated; doubling down our efforts towards chic mountain urbanity and further away from our humble blue-collar roots.
But the truth is, Roanoke enjoyed one of its richest cultural and artistic eras during its manufacturing zenith. Not only this, but it was Roanoke’s least assuming people—the African American community—who were largely responsible for this era’s creation and decades of sustaining. I would even say it is these same Roanokers who are—in part—responsible for cultivating what is arguably called America’s first art form during its greatest era: the art and era of jazz.
The story of jazz in Roanoke begins in the decades post-Civil War. Millions of newly freed slaves began migrating across the South and beyond, anxious to put their freedom to work. In a hostile and often dangerous climate, freed men and women took the meanest land and lowest jobs, and created what beauty they could from it.
Enter one Roanoke, Virginia (known as ‘Big Lick’ back then): a growing town west of Richmond, on the eastern side of Appalachia. Roanoke boasted established tobacco manufacturing, a new railroad connection and a settled community of former slaves and free “negroes” (as stated in the 1941 account, “Our Colored People,” written by Isaac M. Warren of Roanoke). It was a mini-bonanza for the unskilled but willing laborer.
By the early 1920s, Roanoke’s African American community thrived. Jim Crow laws kept black people in their places, quite literally. In Roanoke, those people simply bloomed where they were planted. The Gainsborough community became a shining light and an oasis of hope amid an antagonistic South. It was a lively and vibrant place—a rich humus for jazz to grow. Gospel music rang from church pews, work sinks and rail yards. Stalwart educators, like Miss Lucy Addison, pushed their students to achieve beyond perceived limits; demanding excellence in every subject—especially in areas of language and culture.
At its heart was Henry Street, known as “The Yard;” home to the Morocco (later called The Ebony Club), the 308, and the Dumas Hotel—all entertainment hot spots for folks living on “the other side of the tracks.”
From “Henry Street,” a 1980s Mill Mountain musical production:
“Henry Street…buzzed like a busy hive of bees; it blazed like a billion hearts on fire; it rocked as though eternity waited just around the corner. To Henry Street came plain folks, fancy folks, and all those in-between folks, in every conceivable shade of ebony, tan and ivory. Henry Street was their meeting ground, their courting ground, their stomping ground, their Harlem, their Beale Street, their Catfish Row…On Henry Street there was no shortage of soul food, soul talk or soul folks.”
It was these “billion hearts on fire” that put Roanoke on the jazz map, particularly for African American jazz entertainers.