Pastor, local historian, and former Roanoke mayor Nelson Harris swings Roanoke into the 1940s with a new book to be launched on March 8.
The Roanoke Valley in the 1940s is a 600-page history of the decade with research underwritten by the Roanoke Library Foundation. The launch event will take place as part of Roanoke Arts POP! at the Taubman Museum of Art on Sunday, March 8 from 3 to 5 PM. Roanoke Public Library Foundation will transform the Museum’s atrium into 1940s Roanoke with live music by Star City Swag, dancers, photo booths, free books and a scavenger hunt.
In anticipation of the book and its swell kick off, Harris gave us a little background.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Congratulations on the new book. How do you describe the 1940s in Roanoke?
Nelson Harris: This was a dynamic period marked by the impact of World War 11, post-war boon in municipal, commercial and retail development/projects; the expansion of the airport into Woodrum Field; the filling of Carvins Cove reservoir; Victory Stadium; the lighting of the Roanoke Star; the constant parade of celebrities from sports, radio, film, music, and theatre that came through Roanoke to perform; professional football and baseball exhibition games; the beginning of the local civil rights movement; the building of the J-Class steam locomotives in the N&W Roanoke Shops; the advent of drive-in theatres, etc.
BCR: What interested you most in pursuing the project?
NH: Trying to capture EVERY detail of history in the Roanoke Valley, from the opening of a barbershop to the lighting of the Star on Mill Mountain and everything in between. I wanted this work to be the go-to reference for all things 1940s about the valley.
BCR: Not all historic narratives are equally accessible. What were your biggest challenges in getting the big picture?
NH: I got the big picture by reading EVERY edition of the Roanoke Times from January 1, 1940, to January 1, 1950…a six-year project. I supplemented that by researching historic African American newspapers in Virginia.
BCR: Wow! That’s a lot of news to catch up on. You also worked with the community to make this project a reality. How did that work and what was the response?
NH: This would not have been possible without the support of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation and the director of Roanoke Public Libraries, Sheila Umberger. Further, I accessed the photo archives of all the valley’s municipalities, Hollins University, Roanoke College, four historical societies in the region, and the general public. In all, some 300 archival images appear in the book.
BCR: I remember you actually had a public call for the submission of images to the library for the project. If you had to choose a couple, what images in the book do you think do the most work in helping us understand the period?
NH: Of the 300, I’d select three…(1) the dedication of Woodrum Field on Page 123, top; (2) the WWII victory parade on Page 318; and the inaugural run of the Powhatan Arrow being pulled by a J-Class on Page 362.
BCR: Those reflect some monumental transitions for the nation and our community. How does your past experience as an elected official help you in asking the right questions and looking in the right places to understand history?
NH: Having been in public office I have a deeper awareness of where to look for source material and to gain access to those. For example, the water authority has a tremendous treasure trove of old photos that the general public may not even know about.
BCR: What lessons can we take from the period for today?
Think big! Tremendous things happened in our valley during that time that required large-scale vision/thinking/determination. The Roanoke Star, the advocacy for racial equality, the building of a massive reservoir, the design of the world renown J-Class loco, major expansion of transportation infrastructure…all involved big thinking on behalf of the public and private sectors. We need that today!
BCR: Think big! This project benefits the Roanoke Public Library Foundation. How do you see libraries at work in the community?
NH: Libraries are more than repositories for books. Libraries are cultural, historical, and intellectual centers that fuel life-long learning. They are critical to our quality of life.
BCR: Well said. What are you looking at for your next project?
NH: A book on the Roanoke Valley in the 1950s!
BCR: A logical next step. We’ll look forward to it!
Join Nelson Harris and the Roanoke Public Library Foundation from 3 to 5 PM on Sunday, March 8 at the Taubman Museum of Art. The event is free and open to the public.
Nelson Harris is a native and former mayor of Roanoke. He has been the pastor of Heights Community Church since 1999 and is an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Western Community College. He holds degrees from Radford University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a past president of the Historical Society of Western Virginia and is the author of twelve books, including Downtown Roanoke, Roanoke Valley: Then and Now, A History of Back Creek, Aviation in Roanoke, and Hidden History of Roanoke. ★