Virginia Western Community College and the Roanoke Higher Education Center were recently honored by the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation for the historical interpretive elements incorporated into the $6 million expansion of the Claude Moore Educational Complex. The facility, which houses the Al Pollard Culinary Arts program at Virginia Western, was cited as a Heritage Education site for architectural elements to commemorate the rich history of the Gainsboro Community and Henry Street.
When the Roanoke Higher Education Center partnered with Virginia Western to expand the Culinary Arts School on Henry Street in 2016, they reached out to the community and asked them to help develop interpretive pieces for Henry Street and the historic Strand Theatre. The Gainsboro History Walk Committee, which recently completed the Gainsboro History Panels on Wells Avenue in 2014, spearheaded the effort to tell the story of Henry Street, which was the vibrant cultural and business center for African Americans at the turn of the 20th century until its devastation by urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Focusing on the history of the Gainsboro community was an important piece of the renovation and expansion project. Exterior panels consisting of pictures and audio were placed on the Claude Moore building facing Henry Street that tell the story of those who lived and worked in the area during the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s,” said Dr. Kay Dunkley, Executive Director of the Roanoke Higher Education Center. “We are thrilled with how it turned out and look forward to it being a cornerstone in the community.”
The History Walk Committee – comprised of representatives from the Gainsborough Southwest Community Organization, the Historic Gainsboro Preservation District and other local stakeholders – worked for two years to identify the themes for the panels, locate historic photographs, and collect oral histories. Working closely with the Gainsboro Branch and the Virginia Room of the Roanoke City Library, the committee used historic images and recorded recollections of residents to bring this vibrant history back to life.
With funding provided by the Higher Education Center, Hill Studio provided professional design services and Gropen Inc. of Charlottesville fabricated and installed the interpretive panels. The completed project now features both interior and exterior exhibits with accompanying oral histories about Henry Street and the businesses that once operated there. These interpretive pieces are outstanding examples of a collaborative, community effort to tell the important history of Henry Street during the Jim Crow era and to educate residents and visitors of its evolution as the commercial and social center of the Gainsboro community. With the new investment on Henry Street and now, the visible story of its significant history, there is renewed hope of establishing new businesses and continued community outreach that will foster understanding and healing.
The partners hosted a grand opening for the expanded facility in September. The expansion created more than 8,000 square feet of state-of-the-art kitchen and academic space for the college’s Culinary Arts Program.
“This new facility, in addition to providing the top-of-the-line educational and training space for our students, is a living history lesson,” said Yvonne Campbell, interim dean of the School of Business Technology and Trades. “It gives us a chance to celebrate the past while providing a strong future for the area and individuals in it.”
Currently, more than 330 students take classes in Virginia Western’s culinary arts program, which offers a two-year associate’s degree as well as industry certifications. Since 2013, the Virginia Western Educational Foundation has awarded more than 150 full culinary scholarships, thanks to the support of the Al Pollard Memorial Foundation. Al Pollard was a Roanoke restaurateur behind Corned Beef & Co., Frankie Rowland’s and 419 West who died suddenly in 2006.
“This is a true and valuable partnership between Virginia Western, the Roanoke Higher Education Center, Roanoke and the Gainsboro Community,” said State Senator John Edwards. “This new expansion allows us to grow and celebrate this vibrant area’s history.”