Historical Marker recognizes community contributions of Burrell Memorial Hospital

Ceremony – From l to r: Nelson Harris, Roanoke City Mayor Sherman Lea Sr., and Dr. Nathaniel Bishop unveil the Burrell Memorial historical marker on Friday, March 26.

by Shawn Nowlin

The Burrell Memorial Hospital officially put its mark on history on March 26. Built in 1915, the four-story, 73,000 square-foot historic African American hospital is located in the Gainsboro Neighborhood of Roanoke. Thanks to a combination of generous financial backers and city leader efforts, the hospital was immortalized with a plaque from the Commonwealth last Friday.

Burrell memorial Hospital Marker

The domino effect all began when former Roanoke City Mayor Nelson Harris contacted Debbie Bonnivell, CEO of Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare (BRBH), in the fall of 2019 with the desire to submit an application for the historical marker.

“We were excited to work with him to provide him access to the story on the historic panels in our Burrell Center lobby and to provide an easement to the City of Roanoke for installation and maintenance of the historic marker,” said BRBH Chief Financial Officer Mark Chadwick. “This seemed like a relatively easy task, but these things take time to obtain all of the necessary documentation and approvals. The Rev. Harris deserves the lion’s share of the credit for navigating with local partners and Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) application and approval processes.”

Sherman Lea, Sr.

Before the unveiling, Harris, Bonnivell, Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. and Dr. Nathaniel Bishop, the Senior Associate Dean at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, all provided remarks in front of the hospital. Also present for the ceremony were Chadwick, Vice President of the Executive Board Forest Jones and BRBH Division Director of Adult and Family Services Letitia Hawkins-Beatty, among others.

Debbie Bonniwell

“Dr. Burrell’s skills as a surgeon, his integrity as a man and his general work as a citizen all serve to endear him to the people of Roanoke and beyond. When he died in 1914, his fellow doctors bought a two-story house and renovated it into a hospital in his honor,” said Mayor Lea. “Soon after opening a year later, the hospital received the endorsement of the Roanoke Academy of Medicine and the Board of Charities. Today’s historical marker will remind generations to come of Dr. Burrell’s legacy and the impact of this institution.”

Dr. Nathaniel Bishop

It has been approximately 105 years since the Burrell Hospital first opened its doors. While many know how the origins of the facility came to be, facts such as the building housing the only African-American medical facility in Roanoke from 1915 to 1965 and being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 are not as commonly known. Today, after years of renovations, the hospital is home to the Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare at the Burrell Center. People all throughout the region use the facility every year.

Nelson Harris

“An extremely talented individual who used his talents for the good of the community and to expand access to medical care for the African American community. That is how I would describe Dr. Isaac Burrell,” Jones said.

All are encouraged to visit the historical marker to learn more about the history of the hospital.