Church Ceremony Honors People and Neighborhoods Important to the Black History of Virginia’s Roanoke Valley

When 102-year-old Lessie Jones Polk rose from her seat, more than 200 others followed.

They cheered for the deep impact Polk has made on her community, resonating through generations.

Polk was one of five people honored Tuesday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke as part of a black history celebration organized by Total Action for Progress. The banquet room brimmed with civic leaders from Roanoke and the surrounding region, with 224 people in attendance, according to the nonprofit.

Between speeches dedicated to the honorees, the program explored historic black neighborhoods in the Roanoke region that thrived before desegregation. Speakers also dove into the history of urban renewal in Roanoke in the mid-20th century, which displaced residents in those neighborhoods and effectively shuttered businesses in some of those communities.

Polk represented Roanoke’s Old Northeast community, which was uprooted by urban renewal. She was the owner of a home-based beauty shop for more than 70 years, served as the first black president of the Democratic Women of the Roanoke Valley, president of the Gardens Clubs of Virginia and a church organist for more than 50 years.

Two other honorees were Major Hill, who represented the Pinkard Court community of Roanoke County, and Nettie Johnson of the Oldfields community near Hollins.

Hill was born in Slate Hill, “a hop, skip and a jump” from Pinkard Court, said presenter Travis Calloway. Pinkard Court was named for a famous figure in the Roanoke Valley, John Henry Pinkard.

Hill attended the all-black Carver School in Salem, but attended many social events at the all-black Pinkard Court School. Hill was “always a go-getter,” Calloway said. He worked for Beane Electrical Co. and later retired from Yokohama Tire Co.

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Source: The Roanoke Times