Sunday, August 14, 2005
When segregation ruled the streets
A largely forgotten chapter of Roanoke's racial history emerges from the work of an ambitious summer intern.
It's a matter of custom that blacks and whites rarely live among each other in Roanoke, isn't it?
The pattern's been reinforced over the years by restrictive subdivision covenants and discriminatory mortgage lending, but it's not like it was the law.
In fact, it was. For a brief period 90 years ago residential segregation in Roanoke - and several other cities - was the law.
From 1911 to 1917, Roanoke had two city ordinances that required blacks and whites live apart, including a law that created four segregation districts where blacks were required to live. Everything outside those districts, which were mostly in the Gainsboro neighborhood and to its north, was the white area.
Struck down by a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the ordinance was forgotten until a 21-year-old summer intern with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources office in Roanoke unearthed it as part of her research on four homes on Gilmer Avenue Northwest.
"It was really rewarding, and at the same time, kind of like, whoa!" said the intern, Naomi Mattos of Fredericksburg.
The discovery didn't surprise Radford University political science professor Reginald Shareef, who authored a 1996 book on the history of Roanoke's black community. But it does add a chapter to the explanation of the social conditioning that leads Roanokers to live where they live even today, he said.
"I think it's almost an unconscious conditioning," Shareef said. "There are certainly places in Roanoke city that you're comfortable, and certain places that you shouldn't be."
A 'twist on progressive'
Mattos, a military daughter who just graduated from the College of William and Mary, never dealt firsthand with discrimination. She always lived in integrated communities, until she came to Roanoke for the summer.
Roanoke has long been identified as one of the most residentially segregated cities in the country. At the time of the 2000 census, it was the most segregated city in Virginia, and ranked 66th in segregation among 330 metropolitan areas nationally.
About 65 percent of the Roanoke metro area's 32,000 blacks lived in eight majority-black census tracts in the city, compared with 42 predominantly white tracts.
"Coming here and actually, like, seeing pockets of people in certain places, it was kind of unsettling and I don't think I ever got used to it, really," she said. She has since returned to Fredericksburg to prepare for her job with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Northern Virginia.
Mattos' assignment was to research the history of four houses in the 400 block of Gilmer Avenue in Gainsboro. Her boss, Roanoke Regional Preservation Office director John Kern, had noticed in old city directories that around 1915 the racial majority on the block switched from white to black.
A friend of Kern's suggested to Mattos that Roanoke might have had a segregation ordinance as did Richmond and some other Southern cities.
With the help of the city clerk's office, Mattos found the ordinances that showed Roanoke, too, made segregation the law.
Such ordinances got their start in Baltimore in 1910, Mattos said. Richmond and Roanoke followed soon after in 1911.
"It puts a different twist on progressive," Kern said. "Roanoke was right up on this." Other cities that joined the trend included Winston-Salem, N.C.; Atlanta; and Louisville, Ky.
Roanoke's first segregation ordinance made it illegal for a "colored" person to move onto a block where the majority of residents were white, and vice versa. It did, however, contain a provision for servants to live on the block where they were employed.
In 1912, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law allowing for the creation of segregation districts. A year later, Roanoke formed an all-white Special Committee of Segregation to create its districts.
The city council, then called the Common Council, adopted the map with its four black districts in February 1915.
The districts had one problem, though, Mattos discovered. At the insistence of whites who lived to the east and west of the two largest black districts, Gilmer Avenue was left as a white area. Doing otherwise, a resident named W.M. Shickle noted in a Roanoke Times newspaper story, would "cut off the only exit citizens of the NW have to the NE and to the business section without passing through a negro district."
But a single white street between two black streets could not stand under the 1911 ordinance. The street was already in transition, with whites moving out, Mattos found by searching city directories. Between 1910 and 1915, the number of black households on a four-block section of Gilmer increased from one to 66 out of 99.
In the course of about a year around 1915, the 400 block changed from 22 white households to just three, Mattos discovered.
The new Gilmer residents included many of Roanoke's most influential black residents of the day: Roanoke's first black dentist, Edward R. Dudley, whose son became a New York State Supreme Court justice and an ambassador to Liberia; physicians J.B. Claytor Sr. and J.H. Roberts, co-founders of Burrell Memorial Hospital; a young Oliver Hill, later a renowned civil rights lawyer, and others.
Roanoke's segregation ordinance, along with all others, was struck down in 1917 by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Kentucky case, Mattos said.
The high court found the ordinance and others like it in violation of the 14th Amendment, which prevents government interference in property rights. Blacks could own property anywhere, but were prevented from occupying property in white districts even if they owned it. The court ruled that the right to use property is included in the right to own it.
The court made no comment on the discriminatory nature of the ordinance. In essence, the "separate but equal" mind-set created by the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which endorsed the South's Jim Crow laws, continued to prevail.
Roanoke and other communities found other ways to enforce the residential separation of the races.
In 1921, a city councilman proposed a resolution asking whites not to sell property in white neighborhoods to blacks, and blacks not to buy it. Doing otherwise would be "regarded as in violent conflict with the characteristic customs of our splendid citizenship," the resolution read.
But after protests from black leaders, the resolution was never presented for a vote.
Soon after that, though, new subdivisions going up in the southern part of the city included restrictive covenants that prevented sale of the properties in them not only to blacks but Lebanese, Greeks, Italians and Jews.
Later, mortgage lenders and insurers across the country kept blacks out of white neighborhoods by refusing to lend them money or insure them in a practice called redlining.
"That legacy of discrimination has just morphed into different manifestations," said Shareef, the Radford professor.
Few if any of Roanoke's contemporary historians and black leaders knew the ordinances existed prior to Mattos' discovery.
"It was shocking to me. I just thought it was a matter of custom," said Gainsboro neighborhood activist Evelyn Bethel.
But she agrees with Shareef that the various manifestations of segregationist policy combined to train both blacks and whites into a certain way of living.
"Even though the law changes, you have cultural norms that become embedded in how people do things and how people think about things," Shareef said. "It's really unconscious," he said.
The ordinance and efforts that succeeded it set the tone for contemporary race relations in Roanoke.
When blacks "see something that looks like anything we've seen in the past," Shareef said, "it's automatic: It's discriminatory."
For Mattos, who hopes to expand and publish her findings, uncovering the ordinances provided both a harsh history lesson, and a study in perseverance and self-determination.
Despite discrimination, Roanoke's black leaders found a way to provide every service for their race that whites had for theirs, she noted, from Burrell Memorial Hospital and Ideal Pharmacy to Magic City Building and Loan Association.
"It's inspirational," she said, "and at another point you're taken aback and it's kind of a tough thing to swallow."Segregation by Law From 1915 to 1917, Roanoke had four segregated districts designated for black residents, while the rest of the city was set aside for whites. City leaders initially attempted to preserve Gilmer Avenue as an all-white thoroughfare between white neighborhoods to the east and west, as this map shows. But an earlier segregation ordinance prevented a single white street between two designated black streets, so the plan was scrapped. Roanoke's ordinance, along with those in other mostly Southern cities, was struck down by a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. These designated black areas, at least those not destroyed by urban renewal, remain predominantly black today.
Proposed Gainsboro Historic District
5 p.m. Monday
Gainsboro Public Library
15 Patton Ave. N.W.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Roanoke have jointly nominated the Gainsboro area for inclusion on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The proposed district includes more than 200 properties on about 74 acres, or 33 blocks, north of the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and west of Interstate 581. Monday's presentation will include an explanation of the district and its implications for residents and business owners.