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, 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. The city can be found at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley, approximately 193 and 284 miles from Richmond and Norfolk, respectively; 178 miles from Charleston, W.Va; 194 miles from Charlotte, N.C.; and 251 miles from Washington, D.C.
Rich in salt marshes that are 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.” Around 1852, the railroad almost made its way to the Roanoke Valley area, missing it by enough that the town moved to be near it. However, the original city area maintained its allure and eventually became the new city center, and around 1860 it was renamed Roanoke. Its name was derived from “Rawrenock,” the Native American word for the shell beads 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 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, establishing its reputation as one of the oldest marketplaces in the country.
African-Americans played a major role in the city’s development as well. Many were brought to the area as slaves, later obtaining their freedom, with the generations to follow staying 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 for African-American students, built in 1916.
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.)
Today, Roanoke–with just under 100,000 denizens–is part of what is called the Roanoke Valley and the “Capital of the Blue Ridge,” referring to its location in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
Its boutique size and position as a primary center for health care, transportation, manufacturing, conventions, distribution, attractions, recreation, trade and entertainment careers and offerings makes it a popular destination for residents and visitors alike. In fact, the city has been honored with “All-America City” designations three times, and at one time was ranked by Money magazine as one of the top three “Best Places to Retire in the United States.”
Famous Roanokans are numerous, including former Giants running back and TV analyst Tiki Barber and his twin brother, Tampa Bay Buccaneer cornerback Ronde Barber; former Major League Baseball player Billy Sample; NFL football player John St. Clair; artist John Alan Maxwell; former University of Virginia superstar and former professional basketball player Curtis Staples; former U.S. Secretary of Defense under the Truman administration Louis A. Johnson; and former NBA player George Lynch, among others.
I started off my exploration of Roanoke with a leisurely walk through the Historic Roanoke City Market, still standing today as the oldest continuously operating open-air market in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Open year-round, seven days a week, the market encompasses both outdoor and indoor vendors who offer everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to baked goods, plants and flowers, clothing, handcrafted items, bath and body care products, jewelry and a great deal more, in addition to a bevy of ethnic restaurant establishments inside the marketplace that reflect the city’s culinary diversity.
To learn more about the downtown area, embark upon the historic, self-guided downtown walking tour, which highlights such places as the Friendship, Kimball and Dogmouth fountains, the Virginia Carriage Co., the Main Public Library, the Shenandoah Hotel, the Commonwealth of Virginia Building and Market Street Row with a bevy of shops and boutiques, among other sites.
While downtown, one simply must stop by Texas Tavern, which bills itself as “Roanoke’s Millionaires Club.” A little cracker box of a place with only 10 seats at the counter founded in 1930, the tavern is known far and wide for its “World-Famous Chili” and “Cheesy Westerns”–a thin, freshly ground meat patty topped with a fried egg, a slice of cheese and relish on a toasted bun. Nothing on the menu, which is primarily diner fare with their own added flair, costs more than $3, but the real draw here is the size of the place, its long-standing history, the great service, the fact that it is open 24/7–and I hear the clientele gets quite “interesting” after midnight on the weekends!–and it just being a great, homegrown Roanoke place to meet the locals.
There’s more travel in Roanoke to come!
- Harrison Museum of African-American Culture 540-345-4818, www.harrisonmuseum.org
- Historic Roanoke City Market 540-342-2028, www.downtownroanoke.org/city-market
- Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau 800-635-5535, 540-342-6025, www.visitvablueridge.com
- Texas Tavern 540-342-4825, www.texastavern-inc.com