An event designed to inform community members about a neighborhood that was once one of the most vibrant centers of Black culture and commerce in the American South continues until Friday, Oct. 16.

The Gainsboro History Tour of African American Culture is a 5K event in Roanoke open to anyone who wants to walk, bike, drive, or run along the self-guided tour that includes 10 landmarks such as the Lucy Addison High School Monument Wall, the Dumas Center for Artistic and Cultural Development, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Statue and Bridge. The event is hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and the Roanoke Graduate Student Association and was part of the Welcoming Roanoke campaign for equality and inclusion.

“So many times, I’m left feeling helpless and not knowing what to do regarding race relations,” said Pamela Stell, senior human resources manager at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, who proposed the idea, which has drawn the attention of other localities across the state. “I decided it was time to stop talking and start doing. Being new to the area, I did some research and was astounded by the amount of history within the Black community in Roanoke. Being a member of the VTC Wellness Committee made it possible to develop the event.”

During the event, participants follow a guided route that starts on McDowell Avenue Northwest and ends downtown, documenting their stop at landmark sites along the way. A number of prizes are available for those who register and record meaningful submissions from at least five sites.

For example, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Statue, participants are asked to submit the quote on the base of the statue. At another site, the Harrison School Apartments, participants need to submit a statement about an educator of color who had a positive impact on them. Checkpoint submissions may be recorded on the registration form.  

Historic Gainsboro is a predominantly Black neighborhood, which more than a century ago was the hub of a thriving and economically diverse Black community with its own doctors, lawyers, pharmacies, restaurants, hotels, and night clubs. Read more about Gainsboro’s history, including its plight during Urban Renewal of the 1950s.

“Participating in the historic Gainsboro 5K was incredibly thought-provoking,” said Leslie LaConte, assistant dean for research at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, who participated with a small group of faculty and their families. “Actually walking through neighborhoods and appreciating the landmarks was a powerful way to begin learning about both the rich history of Roanoke’s Black community and the damage that they’ve had to overcome."

Others had similar reactions after completing the 5K.

“The City of Roanoke has certainly not been immune to the traumatic racial divisions and strife that have persisted in our nation’s history,” said Kristopher Rau, assistant professor of basic science at the medical school, who participated in the 5K with his family. “I have a better awareness now of the many contributions of Roanoke’s Black community in the fabric of our local, state, and national history.”

The 5K and a virtual Roanoke Black History panel discussion held last month have been presented in recognition of Virginia Tech’s InclusiveVT Campaign and Inclusive VT Week.

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