Defining the Dumas Legacy

In May of this year African American activist Martin Jeffery, a director of The Dumas Hotel Legacy, Inc., published an editorial in Roanoke.com tracing one of the most painful parts of black history in Roanoke, VA: the days when city officials began to take full advantage of the broad reach of eminent domain that urban renewal fostered to transfer wealth and property (including many businesses) from black owners to the largely white power structure. Reimbursement figures have always been a joke; one can accurately say that the city took hundreds of acres of African American land for a steal. That pattern has continued to rear its ugly head over the years. Over 40 million in federal community block grant funds officially earmarked by the city for Gainsboro between 1968 and 1995 never went there.

The latest insult to the black community occurred last week when Total Action for Progress (TAP) sold the historic Dumas Hotel to an anonymous buyer. By the way, the legal name of TAP is still Total Action Against Poverty.  At the time of last week’s sale, the Dumas Legacy group had made a generous offer for the building and had agreed to continue serious attempts to raise more money, despite community protests about a TAP-assigned September deadline. After all, the Legacy members did not share the same prior knowledge of TAP’s intent to sell as other business executives in town have enjoyed for several years now.  Still, Legacy raised over 60 K in a couple of weeks. They were well on their way to reaching the list price of $1,075.000.

Part of the historic legacy of the Dumas goes back to its owners, Dr. and Ms. Maynard Law and their son’s family, Wilton Lash and Darthula Barlow Lash. The Law and Lash families had hoped to turn the Dumas into a cultural and community center which would attract various community groups following the paradigm of the Jefferson Center. Vernice Law petitioned the city, saying that her family was willing to share the building with TAP for its meals programs and even with the City of Roanoke, if only the black community could retain a portion of it. But Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority bought the building for $25,000 in 1988 and handed it to TAP in 1990.

Yet, a 1981, 169-page Gainsboro Project Area Committee (PAC) report had been fully backed by the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The report detailed elaborate plans for the Gainsboro community (including the Dumas) that were designed by the black community to re-capture its dramatic historic significance and creative brilliance. The plans mapped out mix-use retail, office, community, and residential activities; however, all the accepted plans were suddenly scraped by the city and previously appropriated funds for the project were sent elsewhere.

The Dumas, once an African American musical and cultural center located on Henry Street (also known as the Harlem Renaissance of the South in the 1920s and ’30s); a place graced by stars such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, would either face demolition or ownership by puppet agencies of the city’s elite.  The Lash family was forced to pay $5,000 to board up the building, while their offers to renovate it or lease it back to the city were refused.  The city wanted to employ a master lease that could be overseen by city officials to keep out what housing authority officials referred to as “undesirable elements.”

Documents from The Roanoke Times show that millions have been allocated over the years for several urban renewal projects that included Henry Street/Gainsboro revitalization.  TAP was the overseer of the Halcyon Plan for Henry Street in the ’80s (including the Dumas). Later, TAP handed the Dumas back to the housing authority; the agency that assumed the property from the Lashes, extending them a first option to buy if the property were ever sold.

The Final Statement of Community Development Objectives and Proposed Use of Funds published by the City of Roanoke in 1990 indicates that the city changed its mind again, awarding what was labeled “the 12-million-dollar community development venture” known as The Henry Street Revival Project to the managerial guardianship of TAP.  The Gainsboro Neighborhood Plan adopted by Roanoke City Council in March of 2003, part of Vision 2001-2020, calls Gainsboro a “village center” and speaks of the Roanoke Community Development Corporation’s (RNDC’s) 1998 plan to revitalize Henry Street. The plan states:

“Like many inner-city neighborhoods in America, the Gainsboro community continues to deal with the consequences of the urban renewal programs of the 1960s and 70s that displaced many families and businesses.  The general sentiment today in America, and in Gainsboro, is that urban renewal was something done to the community instead of with the community.  One of the main purposes of this plan is to ensure that the community is involved in determining its own future and that the community’s goals and interests are reflected in future development, ultimately leading to a better and more vibrant Gainsboro.”(GNP, Roanoke City Council, 2003)

Lost somewhere in this chain of deception lies the legacy of the Dumas, a historic building that once belonged to a thriving African American community. Now Roanoke citizens must decide the future of this iconic building. “The contract has not closed,” Martin Jeffery told a reporter from the Roanoke Tribune on Monday morning. “It’s not just about the building; it’s about hope itself.”

Mary Campagna has been a freelance writer in the area for over 25 years. She wrote Gainsboro: The Destruction of a Historic Community in 1995, published by Historic Gainsboro Preservation District, Inc.