Roanoke is divided by the railroad. Tracks cut through the city separating the neighborhood of Gainsboro from the downtown area. During segregation, the railroad tracks served as more than just a means to transport goods but as an unofficial border between black and white citizens of Roanoke.
Gainsboro, the historically African American neighborhood lies just across the tracks from the Virginia Museum of Transportation where the MobileBooth is parked. The Henry Street Bridge, located one block away from the MobileBooth, used to be the only way for anyone to cross the tracks from Gainsboro into downtown Roanoke. “We had to be back over the bridge at about six o’clock in the evening,” said participant Dr. Perneller Chubb-Wilson.
On February 20, 2008,? the Henry Street Bridge was renamed the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge. Dr. Chubb-Wilson and Bishop Edward Mitchell, founding members of the Roanoke chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, came to StoryCorps to discuss their fight to rename the bridge and what that meant for Roanoke.
“I know that civil rights is not only in your heart, it’s in your blood. You breathe it… They call you the mother of the bridge,” said Bishop Mitchell.
“It was hard to get it here. After such a long fight in the city of Roanoke, when I got home one night, one Sunday night, I got down on my knees and I said, ‘Lord I can’t take this anymore.’ Then I went to sleep and around 4:30am, I woke up and turned back and forth.
“At 5:10 I sat up straight out of bed, ‘Name the bridge after Martin Luther King!’ So I started thinking about that bridge. The bridge was a bridge that we had to walk over back and forth. It reminded me of the bridge in Selma, Alabama. I said, ‘Lord are you trying to tell me to name that bridge?’ So I called Bill Carter. I said, ‘Bill, we are naming the Henry Street Bridge after Martin Luther King.’ I said, ‘God told me this morning to name that bridge after Martin Luther King.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll take it to council this morning and see what they say.’
“At 9:25 I got a call. [Bill] said, ‘Little darling are you laying down or standing up?’ He said, ‘Well I want you to know that it was voted unanimously that the bridge will be named after Martin Luther King,’” said Dr. Chubb-Wilson.
“It became the ideal place because he was a bridge that brought people together,” said Bishop Mitchell.
“I think this has brought all of us, white and black, together in the community.” said Dr. Chubb-Wilson.
The Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge is a modest footbridge. Flowers adorn each end, inspirational quotes are etched into the ground. “Dare to Dream,” the bridge says. A bronze statue of Dr. King stands on the Gainsboro side. Sit down on a nearby bench and you can listen to bits of his speeches piped into the air. According to Bishop Mitchell, this statue is a near perfect likeness.
p.s. – Thanks, JH.