Posted on September 14, 2021

Art Celebrating Roanoke’s Diversity Is Replacing City Hall Portraits of Former Mayors

Jeff Sturgeon, Roanoke Times, September 10, 2021

Roanoke has removed a city hall tribute to decades of mayoral leadership, almost all of it by white men.

Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell arranged to take down an entire hallway of mayoral portraits at the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building last month.

“It is my feeling,” Cowell wrote to the city council, “that the current image (a corridor lined nearly exclusively with white males) does not align with our efforts at being welcoming or supporting diversity and inclusion.”

An art gallery intended to highlight population diversity will open in the hallway Friday during the kickoff for Welcoming Week, a celebration to connect people of all backgrounds.

Cowell said he discussed the possibility of making changes in the hallway for about a year and a half with other people, including elected leaders and staff, before he took action. City officials declared the concept of “interwoven equity,” which means embracing, welcoming and meeting the needs of diverse people, a pillar of municipal government last year. An advisory panel on equity and empowerment has been meeting all year and, since then, the values diversity, inclusion and equity have appeared to increasingly influence decision-making in local government.


Roanoke had no Confederate statues, but decided last year not to reset its 60-year-old Lee monument after it was deliberately pulled down by a man who said he wanted to prevent civil strife in Roanoke. He is charged with destroying a monument.

In its place will go a marker to recognize Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who contributed cancer cells to important medical research and who once lived in Roanoke.

Another Confederate emblem was stripped away when the city school system renamed Stonewall Jackson Middle School as John P. Fishwick Middle School in 2018.


The city municipal building will continue to display the portraits of a few former mayors who achieved milestones and the incumbent mayor. They’re on the wall inside the city council’s meeting room.


In place of the wall of mayors, which had been just outside the council chamber, Cowell promised “a very good representation of our diversity and our welcoming nature.”


White men occupied the mayor’s office exclusively until 1975 when Noel Taylor became the city’s first Black mayor by appointment. He was elected the next year and ended up serving until 1992. The next 24 years, the city was led again by white mayors. In 2016, Sherman Lea was elected and he remains in office as part of a Black majority on the city council, the first in Roanoke’s history.


Trish White-Boyd, the city’s vice mayor, who is African American, won’t miss the mayoral lineup.

“Nobody knows who they are, they don’t relate anymore. We just need something more current,” she said.