Things To Think About - Wisdom From Homer

The Resurrection of the Old Lick Cemetery In Roanoke Virginia


Dear Henry,

I have always felt a strong call to "pray for the dead," even as a child. 

My grandmother was an avid genealogist (I inherited this love from her), and I used to accompany her to various old graveyards, where she transcribed and photographed old headstones. I would spend my time trying to scrape overgrown grass and weeds from the headstones, having developed the strange belief that they couldn't go to heaven if you couldn't read the name on a tombstone. It always made me so sad to see unkept headstones.

While I've (somewhat) grown out of the belief that an unmarked grave condemns people to walk the earth as ghosts, the image of Patroclus, in Madeline Miller's book The Song of Achilles (review here), wandering the world as a shadow because no one would write his name down made me cry.



I was also very sad to see this poor unkept little cemetery right as I pulled off Interstate 581, and one of my first thoughts entering the city of Roanoke for the first time was, "I need to find out the story there."  Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long. That following Sunday, the church bulletin had a call for volunteers to help restore the cemetery.  

The big G is really good at creating coincidence.

The Old Lick Cemetery was the first cemetery available for the African-American population living in Roanoke's Gainsboro/Old Lick area and was used between 1870ish-1930ish. It was mainly cared for by the Old Lick's First Baptist Church and was the primary burial ground for that congregation. It was a well-maintained and beautiful place until 1955, when the City of Roanoke began evicting a large population of African American citizens, living and dead, from their homes.

Do you remember how I talked about Roanoke city, in an effort to move people into the suburbs and in preparation for Eisenhower's Highway system, began clearing large areas of the Gainsboro/Old Lick area? (read The Real Story of Roanoke here)  It was done poorly.



While I realize I am looking at the implementation of the 1955-65 revitalization and urban renewal projects through the lens of someone who grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, I still struggle with how it was carried out and question whether it was ethical, even for its time.

The city condemned some 1600 homes, 200 businesses, and 24 churches heartbreakingly and unfairly.   

Individual homeowners were offered approximately $3,000 each for their homes when the average cost of a new home was around $7,000. The city did not help secure financing for replacement home purchases. Because this eviction took place many years before the 1968 Fair Housing act and the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and because of the lack of jobs in the Roanoke area at the time, the people who lost their homes had a difficult, if not impossible, time finding another home they could afford. It was financially devastating for the people who lived in the area.

What happened to the cemetery is also pretty upsetting.



A good three-quarters of the cemetery needed to be cleared to make way for the planned Interstate 581. The family members of the deceased were given the option to re-inter their beloved dead at their own expense (I'm not sure where) but, as you have just read, no one in that neighborhood had the financial wherewithal to rebury their dead; they weren't even sure where they could house the living. So almost 1,000 people were unceremoniously scooped up and placed in a mass grave at Coyner Springs, Roanoke's Potter's Field at the time. The remaining graves were largely abandoned, and nature took over the cemetery.

The revitalization of the cemetery began in 2019, first with a gathering of names and next with the 2021 creation of  Friends of Old Lick Cemetery, which has been slowly reclaiming the cemetery and is the organization I began helping right after we moved here. Resurrecting the graveyard has been rewarding work, and I'm glad to be a part of it.

I've even found the graves of people who served in the Union army during the US Civil war! Stay tuned to www.everydaypatriot.com for their stories.

xoxo a.d. elliott  


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Roanoke, Virginia. 

In addition to the travel writings at www.takethebackroads.com, you can also read her book reviews at www.riteoffancy.com and US military biographies at www.everydaypatriot.com

Her online gallery can be found at shop.takethebackroads.com

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