I had never been to Virginia - the state they say is for Lovers. So when the invitation came across my desk to visit the city of Roanoke a few months ago, I jumped at the chance. It was stunningly beautiful, the people were so warm and friendly, and there was a great deal of history and exciting attractions to explore. So here you go!
Originally inhabited by Native Americans and discovered by American frontiers people in the mid-1700s, the city of Roanoke has always been a city at a crossroads, literally and historically.
If Virginia were a shoe with the toes pointed to the left, Roanoke is in the western part right about where the eyelet of the laces would be, at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley approximately 193 and 284 miles from Richmond and Norfolk, respectively; 178 miles from Charleston, WV; 194 miles from Charlotte, NC; and 251 miles from Washington, DC.
Rich in salt marshes, referred to as “Licks,” the area was attractive to the native animals and once settlers started moving in, the city became known as “Big Lick.” About 1852, the railroad almost made its way to the Roanoke Valley area, missing it by enough that the town moved to be near it. But the originally city area maintained its allure and eventually became the new city center, and about 1860 it was renamed Roanoke. Its name was derived from the Native American word "Rawrenock," a name for the shell beads worn they wore and used as trade goods.
Close to that same time the Shenandoah Valley Railroad came through, which marked the beginning of the city’s establishment as a major crossroads for commerce, followed by its official charter in 1882 or 1884, depending on which historical account you follow.
The popularity of the railroad continued (the name was eventually changed to the Norfolk and Western Railway) and as a result, the commerce that came through on it played an integral role in the city’s growth and establishing its reputation as one of the oldest marketplaces in the country.
African American History
African Americans played a major role in the city’s development as well. Many were brought to the area as slaves, later attaining their freedom and the generations to follow staying here and making a name for themselves in every aspect of the cultural landscape.
For an overview of the impact that blacks made in the city and area, be sure to visit the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, whose mission is "to research, preserve and interpret the achievements of African Americans, specifically in Southwestern Virginia, and to provide an opportunity for all citizens to come together in appreciation, enjoyment and greater knowledge of African American Culture."
Not only is the museum significant, its location is as well, as it is situated inside a Virginia Historic Landmark - the Harrison School, the first public high school built in 1916 for African American students.
The permanent collection is a testament to the many ways that blacks influenced the growth and development of the city in politics, medicine, education, the arts and other arenas, as well as to the people’s ties to the Motherland, as evidenced by the textiles, sculptures, jewelry, masks, paintings and other items representing many African countries.
The museum also possesses a great deal of oral history recollections and stories from area elders who offer first-hand accounts of life here, coupled with a variety of traveling exhibits that enhance the experience (more about African American history in Roanoke is coming up).
Next we’ll look at Roanoke today and start exploring a bit of downtown.