African American Culture & History

Martin Luther King Jr. Statue in Roanoke, VA

An excerpt from our City Manager Bob Cowell.....

African American History Month

February is recognized in the United States as an opportunity to acknowledge the history and contribution of African Americans.  Similar commemorations occur in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.  Versions of celebrating these contributions, date back to the 1920’s in the United States, becoming more formalized in the 1970’s, primarily at educational institutions and centers of black history and culture.  Generally celebrations highlight the struggles African Americans have faced in our Country and the many contributions they have made to our economic, cultural, and social vitality.

Lucy Addison
An Educator and More

In previous blog posts I have highlighted some of the many contributions made by African-Americans here in Roanoke.  In this post, in recognition of the role educators have played in promoting African American history, I want to acknowledge the contributions made in Roanoke by one of the most influential women in the City’s history – Lucy Addison.  Lucy Addison was born enslaved in 1861 in Fauquier County, Virginia and graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia and also attended Virginia Normal School, Cook County Normal School in Chicago and Howard University. 

Ms. Addison began her teaching career at Gainsboro Elementary School in Roanoke and was in 1917 named principal of the Harrison School.  The Harrison School officially offered course work only through grade eight, but Addison arranged for high school classes to be taught as well. She gradually added all the elements of a full high-school curriculum, and in 1924 the State Board of Education accredited the Harrison School as a secondary school. Until then, African Americans of Roanoke who desired a high school diploma had to go elsewhere to earn one.  At the time, Harrison School was the largest African American school in Virginia under the leadership of a woman.  Ms. Addison worked in education for over 40 years and based upon her contributions, was honored with the naming of a new high school in 1928, the first such honor offered to any resident of the City of Roanoke.  In addition to her teaching and school leadership roles, Ms. Addison served in leadership positions with her church and the Burrell Memorial Hospital, also located in the Gainsboro neighborhood. 

Learning More

There exists an upcoming opportunity to ensure that the contributions of African Americans in Virginia is learned by more Virginians.  On February 11 beginning at 6:00 pm at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture located in Downtown Roanoke at Center in the Square, the Governor’s African American History Education Commission is conducting a listening session.  The Commission is seeking input on how to strengthen the Virginia history standards and enhance African American history education in classrooms throughout the Commonwealth.  Additional information about this listening session and the work of the Commission can be found at this link.

You can of course learn more about the contributions of Ms. Addison and other African Americans in our community by visiting the Harrison Museum or by visiting the incredible collection of resources found at the Gainsboro Branch Library.  There are a series of events celebrating African American History Month throughout the community including a series of relevant movies being shown at the Melrose Branch Library, a celebration of Hip Hop music at the Main Library and more.  You are encouraged to visit the City’s website to learn more about each of these events.

As I stated in a previous post – African American history is truly American history.  There is no period of our country’s history, from its founding to today that hasn’t involved African Americans.  Much of that history is painful but there are also many examples of amazing contributions even in spite of (or at times because of) the challenges confronted by African Americans.  As Americans we should all strive to learn more about this history and its significance to our country!

Source:  Kneebone, John T. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Lucy Addison (1861–1937)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2020.