Bethel Sisters celebrated for years of community activism
by S. Rotan Hale
It’s a known fact that communities are unfortunately inhabited by many individuals who, for a host of reasons, are totally unaware of what goes on in and around their respective neighborhoods.
However thanks to the efforts of certain citizens–many on a deeper level of awareness–fight the good fight–rising up against or at least call attention to the various injustices befalling said communities.
Woven into the DNA of such individuals is their intrinsic duty to rise up against a host of issues whether it’s: historic neighborhood preservation, basic civil rights infringement or fighting procedures beneficial to some, yet counter-productive to the good of all.
What better place than the Historic Gainsboro Library in northwest Roanoke where a crowded reception held Thursday, Oct., 25, recognized Evelyn Bethel and Helen Davis (aka the Bethel sisters) as two soldiers in the ongoing struggle for civic balance on the local level.
Elegantly dressed as twins, the sisters sat throughout the program quietly smiling while various public figures sang their praises for years of community activism.
“The first time I ever met the sisters, I noticed they were at Roanoke City Council every single time,” said Sheila Umberger,
As director, Roanoke Public Libraries for 14 years, Umberger has won accolades and awards for heading Roanoke’s “Star City Reads” and various other local projects promoting library services.
When she asked, what drove the sisters to attend meetings with such regularity, Umberger said “they expressed the idea that, “‘knowing what’s going on in and around your community, supporting your community and being an example to others in that community”’ was of great importance.”
City Council members, Djuna Osborne and Vice Mayor Joe Cobb were on hand to honor the sisters who as Roanoke natives attended the famed Lucy Addison High School. The vice mayor presented each honoree with a memento designating them “Stars in the Star City.”
Cobb’s comments involved an account of many of the Bethel’s more notable accomplishments including: founders, Historic Gainsboro Preservation, Inc.; instrumental in getting the Gainsboro Library registered with state and national registers of historic places; facilitated Operation Rebirth which moved and rehabilitated historic homes to prevent demolition; inspired Mary Campagna’s book ‘Gainsboro: The Destruction of a Historic Community’ and also prepared and published a brochure on the Gainsboro neighborhood, known as Roanoke’s oldest community.
Evelyn Bethel served on several boards as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources; Roanoke Regional Preservation Board and president of Roanoke Valley Preservation Office Board.
Richard Chubb is a former guidance counselor, teacher and principal with Roanoke City Public Schools. As a Roanoke native steeped in the African American experience of this town, Chubb is not only a contemporary of the Bethel’s but highly regards them as icons of the Gainsboro community.
Chubb is a key member of Dumas Hotel Legacy, Inc.–recently formed to secure ownership of the legendary hotel on what was once known as Henry Street. Located in the Gainsboro area Henry Street was the thriving mecca for Blacks from the 40’s through the mid 80’s when gentrification transformed the area.
Troubled by the urban renewal, Chubb uses terms as hope and perseverance to describe the Bethel’s journey and sees them among of the original gatekeepers of the last efforts to maintain the Gainsboro legacy for posterity.
“Trust me, when this area and the Bethel’s are gone, some of the children will never know the beauty that is in our (elders) heads,” Chubb said.
“One of the things I admired about them was their tenacity, their strength and their courage in the face of adversity,” said Brenda Allen, president, Historic Gainsboro District who pledged to fight to keep the Bethel’s legacy alive.
Freelance writer Jordan Bell closed the ceremony displaying his latest project, Gainsboro Revisited, a documentary on the history of the Gainsboro community and urban renewal in the Roanoke Valley.
Such an affair, however fitting, was a well-deserved gesture of reverence for two souls who’s lives stand as testament to a journey unmatched. The Bethel sisters, with their old-world dignity are nothing less than two civic ambassadors, the likes of which, in these troubled and ever so distracted times, are truly a rare breed.