A visitor driving along Williamson Road past the blocky buildings of the Berglund Center, or down Kimball and Rutherford avenues past the sprawling post office and bank branches, or past aging century-old houses flanking Gilmer and Patton avenues, will get little sense that these places were once thriving, densely populated neighborhoods and bustling hubs of commerce for Roanoke’s Black community.
David Ramey remembered, and used his talent with colored pencils and words to recreate scenes from an era bulldozed by urban renewal policies. “Some people call it progress but others call it something else,” he wrote, enumerating the many types of businesses once concentrated around Henry Street, right across the railroad tracks from downtown Roanoke. Maybe that was the whole problem, he speculated: too many Black businesses too close to downtown. “What would you call it?”
According to the Gainsboro History Project, federally funded urban renewal projects carried out from 1955 to 1974 in Roanoke leveled 1,600 homes, more than 300 small businesses, two dozen churches and several schools. In many instances, Ramey’s drawings, done from memory, provide the only visual record of what those lost communities looked like in their prime.
Six years after his death at age 78, Ramey’s quest to share his memories of the historic heyday of Henry Street and the Gainsboro neighborhood has acquired its greatest boost yet, as Roanoke’s Harrison Museum of African American Culture and Taubman Museum of Art have opened a joint exhibition displaying 200 of Ramey’s drawings and 150 of his stories.
“His work speaks of positive times in the African American Gainsborough community,” said Charles Price, board president of the Harrison Museum.
The joint exhibition, titled “David Ramey: Gainsboro Road and Beyond,” will stay on view through March 31. Price co-curated the shows with Karl Willers, the Taubman’s chief curator.
Ramey’s drawings bring back Price’s own vivid memories of visiting those lost neighborhoods when he was a child. “I remember walking up what people now call Williamson Road, right about before you get up to the post office. The houses were so close, they were about 8 feet apart,” he said. “Another part, where you go on down by the railroad track and go up slightly on the hill, there are people up there who have single family homes. It was a fairly nice community to live in. That’s what he shows.”
‘What he wanted more than anything’
For the first seven decades of his life, the admirers of Ramey’s artwork were restricted to the few who had seen it — members of his family and his colleagues at Norfolk and Western Railway, where he worked as a conductor before retiring in 1996 after 23 years.
“I would like to leave something behind so that people can see what life was like during the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” he wrote. “I have always wanted to write a book, because I had a gift of drawing and painting, and I love to write also. As a young man, I really didn’t have the schooling for my talent, no college degree, so I gave it little thought.”
Conversation with the Curators
The Taubman Museum will host a Conversation with the Curators event on Sunday, November 19, at 2 p.m. featuring David Ramey, Jr. (the son of the artist), Charles Price (from the Harrison Museum) and Karl Willers (from the Taubman).
Admission is free but registration is highly encouraged to reserve a seat.
By the time Ramey died in 2017, he had self-published a book of his drawings and recollections, “The Times and Life on Henry Street” and received a Citizen of the Year award from the Roanoke branch of the NAACP. He witnessed his drawings displayed in Roanoke’s city hall, as well as reproduced larger-than-life size on the side of a city bus and in banners surrounding a construction site in the very neighborhood whose history he sought to recapture.
He didn’t live to see the buoyant celebration of his legacy held Oct. 6 in the Taubman Museum of Art, that featured music, song, dance and appreciative words from Price and Taubman Executive Director Cindy Petersen.
However, the artist’s extended family did get to see the spectacle, among them his son, David Ramey Jr., 60, the keeper of his dad’s art and writing. Ramey Jr. credited Doug Jackson, Roanoke’s arts and culture coordinator, with starting the talks that ultimately led to the joint exhibition.
Petersen told the artist’s son, “Thank you for preserving and honoring the work of your father to show and share with our community.”
“It means the world to me,” said David Ramey Jr. about the joint exhibition and the celebration.
“This night is a very, very happy and a long-awaited night for me,” he said. “ Just to see so many people enjoying it and coming to me and telling me different stories.” He described a woman pausing to tell him that one of the businesses his father drew belonged to her father.
“I’m just so happy to be able to share it with everyone,” the artist’s son continued. “That’s what he wanted more than anything. He wanted people to not forget Henry Street, to not forget Northeast [Roanoke]. That’s why he sat down and he started doing the drawings and doing the essays and everything, so he could share it with everybody else. So this day right here means a great deal to me because it’s being shared with other people.”
As a museum patron suggested to Ramey Jr. that his father’s works should be collected in a book, his countenance took on a wistful smile and a faraway gaze.
‘Never forget the good old days’
In fact, his father had intended to produce more books, but those projects remained unrealized when he died.
However, the late artist produced enough material to fill several volumes — and in the meantime, it could be said that the museum displays provide insights into Ramey’s ambition and talent that might not be so immediately striking in book format.
First, there’s the sheer volume of art produced over three decades, enough to cover the walls of the Harrison Museum and spill out from a Taubman gallery, and the knowledge that those 200 drawings were selected from an assortment of about 700.
Second, there’s the evidence provided of Ramey’s astonishing ability to visualize from memory, especially in the Harrison’s showcase, which groups together multiple views of Henry Street establishments that the artist drew from different angles. While Ramey’s style of rendering is not photorealistic, the consistency and density of details impresses. He was not using photographs as guides — for an overwhelming and tragic majority of businesses and landmarks in Gainsboro and on Henry Street, photos can’t be found or don’t exist.
Ramey worked from memory alone.
Price said that museumgoers who once frequented those same neighborhoods have had their own memories stirred, recognizing lost places from their past.
“He obviously had an amazing eye and a visual memory that was just astounding,” Willers said. “Streets and houses and entire neighborhoods are presented from every perspective.”
Though Ramey in several ways fits the profile of an outsider artist, largely self-taught, creating most of his work without interaction with an established art scene, Willers said he’s unaware of any outsider artist taking on such a sophisticated endeavor, laboring to create an immensely detailed historical record in words and pictures.
“This process of loss of communities happened all over the country, because of the building of the interstates, the ‘urban renewal’ projects. What a lot of those other communities don’t have is such a comprehensive and accurate record,” Willers said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, that would even bring any community to life in this way, between the drawings and the stories that delve into his daily life and the people who he knew, that everybody knew, every businessman up and down the street, the schools, the teachers, the churches, the ministers, right down to the cab company, the police officers that walk the beat around the neighborhood.”
Ramey’s work taken in total became “a major work over time that’s invaluable, in terms of the information it shares, the wisdom that is passed on,” Willers said.
Price stressed how important it was that Ramey depicts African Americans undertaking a wide variety of normal, positive social and commercial interactions — getting haircuts, lining up to see movies, buying hot dogs and vinyl records, chatting in the sunshine and waving hello. “The thing that this tries to do, it brings reality to it, that this is something an individual actually saw.”
“Our neighborhood is gone but not our good memories,” Ramey wrote. “Never forget the good old days of Henry Street.”
A reviewer for the New York-based City Journal also recently wrote about the exhibit: “Roanoke atones for urban renewal — artistically.”
More information about ‘David Ramey: Gainsboro Road and Beyond’
Admission is free to both parts of the joint exhibition.
The Harrison Museum of African American Culture, located on the second floor of Center in the Square at 1 Market Square S.E. in downtown Roanoke, is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m-3 p.m. For further information, call (540) 857-4395, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://harrisonmuseum.com/.
The Taubman Museum of Art, located at 110 Salem Avenue S.E. in downtown Roanoke, is open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays, noon-5 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. For further information, call (540) 342-5760 or visit https://www.taubmanmuseum.org/.