Martha Park is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Granta, Ecotone Magazine, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.
The Dumas Hotel was a rare constant in Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood in the face of urban renewal. One group had a valiant effort to put its fate in their own hands when it hit the market last spring.
It’s hard to move around quickly in Roanoke, Virginia. Nestled in a valley, encircled by the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, the city was built around wide stretches of railroad tracks and the meandering Roanoke River—and there aren’t many shortcuts.
The train tracks create an especially distinct border between downtown and Gainsboro, a historically African-American neighborhood, all but destroyed in a series of urban renewal projects from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Henry Street was once Gainsboro’s beating, bustling heart. In its heyday, residents called Henry Street “The Yard,” and its four-block radius included black- and immigrant-owned businesses like Reynold’s Barber Shop, Jack & Jill Restaurant, Brooks Pharmacy, Joe Weebie’s Grocery Store, Wagstaf Radio Repair, Dr. Powell’s Herbs, Day + Night Cabs, Nick’s Weiner Stand, and the local black newspaper, the Roanoke Tribune.
In 1913, when medical resources for black Roanokers were scarce, a two-room hospital for black patients opened on Henry. Four years later and a few doors down, the stately Dumas Hotel opened its doors, eventually hosting musicians like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. But more important than its businesses and nightlife, Henry Street was a place of refuge for black residents and passers by.
From 1936 to 1967, The Negro Motorist Green Book provided a state-by-state listing of hotels, garages, bars, and restaurants that would be safe for black travelers. There were rarely more than four businesses recommended in Roanoke and most of them were concentrated on Henry Street. Flipping through archive copies, you can sense the tide of urban renewal sweeping through the neighborhood. Prominent businesses disappeared from the list only to reappear years later on another street.
The presence of the Dumas Hotel in the pages of the Green Book appears to have been was a rare constant in a rapidly changing neighborhood. As the city destroyed thousands of homes, small businesses, and schools, the Dumas kept its doors opened and remained a cultural hub for neighborhood residents and a safe haven for black travelers.
Ultimately, as Henry Street customers and business owners were dispersed to farther flung neighborhoods, the Dumas Hotel fell into disrepair. In a deal cut with city officials to keep the building from being condemned, the owners of the Dumas sold the building to the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The hotel closed in 1975.
Still named after the former hotel, the Dumas is one of only two pre-renewal buildings left standing on Henry Street today. On the vacant lots left behind, the occasional pile of bricks or a pipe sticking out of the ground are the only reminders of the street’s formerly bustling life.
Despite new landscaping and sidewalks, Henry Street appears bombed out—deliberately attacked. Some Gainsboro residents think that is, in fact, the case—that the urban renewal projects which decimated the neighborhood were targeting Henry Street and the revenue of its black businesses. “This was war,” a community leader recently told me, “plain and simple.”
A September 2004 Washington Post article reported a $2.4 million plan to renovate the Dumas Hotel and transform it into a cultural center. This was not the first time such a plan was proposed: In 1986, the Roanoke Times reported that Total Action for Progress (TAP), a local anti-poverty agency, was denied their request for $600,000 in federal funds to convert the old Ebony Club building across from the hotel into a Music Center. By 1989, the effort to open the Henry Street Music Center was back on. This time, TAP had been given a gift: the Dumas Hotel, which the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority had purchased in 1987 for less than $25,000. The Housing Authority gave the Dumas to TAP, and in 1992, 150 people attended the grand opening of the Henry Street Music Center and Jazz Institute.
Chrystobel Barlow, a former owner of the Dumas Hotel building, cut the opening ribbon, while Roanoke’s first black mayor, Noel C. Taylor encouraged the crowd, saying, “We must use money as a tool to rebuild other buildings, create jobs, and attract others to invest in the community. We are going to make Henry Street a reality.”
At the time of its grand opening, only the first floor of the Dumas had been renovated, at a cost of $1 million. The Henry Street Music Center kept no regular hours and had no permanent stage. It would take fourteen years to renovate and reopen the entire building. Old wounds of urban renewal reopened during those 14 years: The Dumas was picketed and protested and its name changed multiple times.
In the years following Gainsboro’s urban renewal period, Henry Street became ground zero for neighborhood redevelopment campaigns. A 1985 proposal for the development of Henry Street stressed the importance of the City gaining ownership of the vacant land and the eight buildings still standing at that time in order to lease and sell space and run Henry Street like a mall. Unsurprisingly, neighborhood residents hated this plan, especially its emphasis on redeveloping Henry Street as an entertainment district modeled after Beale Street in Memphis (fittingly, the site of another sweeping urban renewal project).
Conversations about revitalizing Henry Street continued into the early 1990s while the City widened and rerouted several Gainsboro roads. In addition to destroying more historic homes and displacing more residents, this construction disrupted the grid of smaller neighborhood streets that once led pedestrians and automobile traffic through Henry Street. Now it’s difficult to find Henry Street, much less revive it. Even the annual Henry Street Heritage Festival is held downtown, half a mile from the actual Henry Street.
It was not until November 2006 that the entire Dumas Hotel building reopened as the Dumas Center for Artistic and Cultural Development. By that time, the building that was once seen as a sign of hope for the rebirth of Henry Street had become emblematic of the deep distrust residents had for attempts at neighborhood revitalization.
On May 1, 2017, TAP announced it was selling the Dumas. Despite TAP’s more than $5 million investment—largely from historic tax credits—the three-story, 15,000-square foot building was listed at just over $1 million. Immediately after the announcement, Gainsboro community leaders called a meeting of concerned residents, many of whom were angry that they were not given advance notice of the sale or a chance to raise funds to buy the building and keep its ownership in the neighborhood.
A month after the Dumas was put on the market, I met with four community leaders who’d joined together to form the Dumas Hotel Legacy, Inc. (DHL), with the goal of organizing the community to buy the Dumas.
Lee Graves Jr. told me his aunt had a restaurant on Henry Street, and his grandmother lived just around the corner. As a kid, in his grandmother’s backyard, he could hear bands playing at the Star City Auditorium. Saturday nights were for hotdogs at the Dumas. On Sundays, everybody in the neighborhood would get dressed up for church and drive around, up and down Henry Street. “The Dumas,” he said, “is our last stronghold in the black neighborhood.”
Shmura Glenn grew up just beyond Henry Street, on 4th Street. She attended High Street Church, just around the corner on Henry Street. Today, there’s nothing left of her family’s house or the neighborhood where she grew up, which was bulldozed and replaced by a Coca-Cola Factory. High Street Church is gone, too. “If we were able to have fifteen to twenty business in that area back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, then certainly in 2017 we can have five or six businesses there,” said Glenn. “That’s my goal, build Henry Street back up to what it used to be.”
Richard Chubb graduated from Lucy Addison High School in 1954 and spent a lot of time on Henry Street growing up. He remembers how Mr. Barlow, one of the original owners of the Dumas, would tell him he needed to go to college because one day there might not be a Henry Street. At the time, such a world seemed unimaginable.
Martin Jeffrey has lived in Roanoke for 33 years. He has worked as a community activist and is a former NAACP chapter president. He believes community ownership of the Dumas “can reignite social and cultural viability and revitalize the neighborhood from within.” He said that DHL is fundraising in the neighborhood, with each donation buying shares in the Dumas, “so the community will literally own the building.”
DHL put in an offer on the Dumas within weeks of its listing. “We made an $800,000 offer,” Jeffrey tells CityLab, “with the request to put up $30,000 within 30-60 days and a year to fundraise the rest of the $800,000.” TAP refused their offer. Jeffrey figures they didn’t want to take the building off the market and miss the chance to sell it outright. The DHL later revised their timeline, shortening it to ten months while TAP countered with $975,000, due by September 1.
When asked whether the group wanted to change the mission of the Dumas, Jeffrey handed over a printout of TAP’s original mission statement, claiming the Dumas would be “the jewel of diversity” and “the cultural hub of Southwestern Virginia.”
“TAP veered off course,” Jeffrey says, but DHL would lead the Dumas back.
Across the country, former Green Book sites like the Dumas are in danger. Candacy Taylor, who studies these sites, notes in a piece for Lenny Letter that nearly 75 percent of them have been demolished “or radically modified.”
When I spoke with Taylor, she had just finished her fellowship at Harvard University and was driving through Beckley, West Virginia. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, she’ll be on the road until September, researching Green Book sites for her upcoming book. Taylor has partnered with Harvard to develop a mobile app with an augmented reality feature for Green Book sites that have been destroyed. Even if the physical buildings don’t exist anymore, Taylor said, “there are still ways to resurrect that history.”
The Dumas is one of many Green Book sites that will be featured in Taylor’s work. Its interior has been altered significantly, but it’s still standing. For now.
Just down the street from the Dumas, the Henry Street Bridge spans the railroad tracks, connecting Gainsboro and downtown. The bridge was, for many years, symbolic of segregation—one end of the bridge touched down in white Roanoke, the other end black Roanoke. Nowadays, people stop at the center of the bridge to take selfies and watch the sun set over the mountains on the horizon.
In 2008, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., with his arms outstretched was placed on the Gainsboro side of the bridge. When passersby press a plastic button, recordings of King’s speeches blare from speakers embedded in the benches that surround the statue. The bridge was renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge, although people still call it by its old name. On either end of the bridge, brushed gold lettering has been inlaid into the wood: on the Gainsboro side, “I have a dream…” On the downtown side, “Dare to Dream…”
Traveling from the relatively bustling downtown to the decimated Henry Street, the phrase “Dare to Dream” seems almost sinister. Crossing over the bridge, you’d arrive at Henry Street to find it empty and silent except for King’s recorded voice echoing off the brick buildings and absorbed by the vacant lots, warbling and unintelligible as it reached the end of the block.
When I asked Chubb, Glenn, Graves, and Jeffrey what worried them most about the Dumas being sold to an outside company, meandering conversations broke out before falling away into silence. Jeffrey then spoke up:
“That’s not going to happen. That’s not an option.”
“TAP has already proven that they can’t make the Dumas a viable part of the community,” Glenn added, “so now it’s our turn to do it.”
“This is a tremendous opportunity for racial reconciliation and healing,” said Jeffrey, “Or a tremendous opportunity to blow that chance up.”
Now in his eighties, Mr. Chubb told me he still has nightmares about his neighborhood being torn apart as a teenager. “I want to cry. To see the houses boarded up. What do the children see in their neighborhood? I saw hope.”
“Now,” he said, “this is our last hope.”
On July 1, the DHL hosted “Festival at the Dumas,” a fundraiser in which entry fees and concert tickets contributed to the group’s effort to purchase the Dumas. Graves sold barbecue, turkey legs, and hot dogs out of his food truck. The concert continued late into the night, with neighborhood residents clustered around the stage in lawn chairs. It seemed like exactly the kind of community event TAP had longed to see at the Dumas. Four days later, TAP announced it was accepting a bid from another buyer.
Update: On August 5th 2018, more than a year after their original bid fell through, the Dumas Hotel Legacy, Inc. announced that it has secured a purchase contract with TAP.