New Town: A Historic Neighborhood and Blacksburg Tradition
Compiled by Tom Sherman
Pictured: New Town, 1936
I didn’t live in or see historic New Town; I came to Blacksburg too late - 1971. However, over the past 20 plus years, I have met many who did live in this important African American neighborhood. I have been continually impressed with the memories people share of a community that was rich in all the characteristics that make any place special: friendship, caring, pride, welcoming, self-reliance, social support, dependability, and love. Why and how did these people develop such an important neighborhood under such challenging conditions as Jim Crow?
I have three maps and one picture for you to look at to create an image of what is was like to live in New Town.
In the 1870’s and early 1900’s a small African American community developed on the north side of Blacksburg. The neighborhood survived as home to 20 or so families until the early-1970’s when changing legal conditions (primarily the passage of civil rights legislation) and road construction (Price’s Fork from Turner to North Main Street) resulted in the neighborhood no longer being a viable place to live. Here is the story of this neighborhood and its importance then and now.
Pictured: 1900 Blacksburg Town Limits map - Red line is North Main Street and yellow is property of Gilbert Vaughn
Let’s start with a section of the 1900 map of Blacksburg’s Town limits. It shows “Gilbert Street” and property lines with owner’s names. The property circled in yellow was owned by Gilbert Vaughn either the first or one of the first Black people to buy property in what was known as New Town. Gilbert Street is named after Mr. Vaughn. There are 14 lots identified including the “parsonage” which was for the pastor of St. Paul AME Church on Penn Street. There were four other majority Black neighborhoods in Blacksburg. New Town was different in that it was more self-contained/isolated. This map indicates that by 1900 New Town was well developed as a segregated neighborhood though the map doesn’t indicate which lots also had dwellings.
The 1900’s map shows the names of families who owned property/lived in New Town – Mayse, Anderson, Page, and Vaughn. These families were the core of the developing neighborhood and many of these families probably began purchasing land in the late 19th Century. This map shows that neighborhood was fairly well developed by the 1890’s. Most likely the people who lived in New Town during this time worked at Virginia Tech or did domestic work in Town.
Pictured: 1928 Sanborn Map Red Circle is St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall. Sanborn maps were made to identify structures and used by insurance companies to determine rates. The St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall is circled in red. Gilbert Street is labeled “New Town Alley”. This map shows the turn north for “The Alley” clearly.
The 1928 Sanborn map shows 12 homes but probably missed a couple as the Sanborn maps only identified structures in Blacksburg and part of New Town extended north of Blacksburg’s boundaries. This map also shows that the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall (1905) was on the corner of Barger and Gilbert Streets. This building which is the only remaining structure from New Town was a social center for Black people throughout this area. The location of the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall indicates that early in the 20th Century, Black community leaders recognized that New Town was a stable and secure place to build a regional social center.
On the 1926 map, Gilbert Street is labeled “New Town Alley”. This misnaming happens on several maps, probably because the residents of New Town called the small street angled to the north off Gilbert Street, “The Alley”. This map shows that there were some vacant properties but generally New Town had about the same population as in 1900. This map does not show who the owners are.
Pictured: 1937 Street Map of Blacksburg. The red line is Gilbert Street and “The Alley”. Gilbert Street is identified as “New Town Alley”.
Pictured: 1936 Aerial Picture of New Town. The yellow line is Gilbert Street, the red line is “The Alley” and the blue dot is on the roof of the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall.
The 1936 picture of New Town shows 13 homes. This picture is the only known image of New Town in which all the homes and lots can be seen. An examination of this photo indicated that the family names for some of these homes were Vaughn, Christian, Anderson, Mayse, Green, and Johnson. Notice these are many of the same family names as the 1900 map. While undoubtedly family members changed, the families endured.
An examination of the 1936 picture in 2028 indicated that the family names of homes in the 1950’s and 1960’s included: Young, Mayse, Vaughn, Page, Green, Bell, Muse, Johnson, Christian, Saunders, Stewart, and Rollins. Members of the same families lived in New Town for up to 80 years.
The stability of New Town families over many years resulted in people developing deep and abiding relationships as generations of the same families grew and replaced each other. In a very real way, all of these neighbors were a community family who supported, consoled and celebrated together.
From the maps, you can see that New Town was a very stable neighborhood where people grew up together, knew and supported each other for generations. Today, those who lived in New Town speak of the strong community and close friendships that developed and passed from generation to generation where children grew and later lived as adults. The critical contributions this close-knit neighborhood made was to strengthen the shared sense of community, mutual assistance, and self-reliance. These families must have come together to face a common foe – in this case, Jim Crow and wide-spread segregation.
We can learn much about the importance of close and stable communities, of building a sense of self-reliance, and the strength that comes from resourcefulness and togetherness from the people of New Town.
For further information and history, visit the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall. In addition to tours and lectures, the Museum holds four annual events to honor the traditions of New Town: Soul Food Sampling in February, a Gospel Sing in June, a Blues, Brews, and Bar-B-Q festival in the Fall, and a Pot Luck dinner to decorate the SLOFH and celebrate the holidays in December. Today everyone is welcome in New Town.
In an upcoming blog, I will tell about the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall.
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