Gladetown community in Vinton continues biennial reunion tradition

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The Gladetown Reunion always includes a Memorial Service on Sunday afternoon. Sandra Wright (standing on left) was the guest speaker at the service. Harriett Childress (right) plays a very instrumental role in organizing the reunion each year as a member of the Reunion Committee. Leslie Polk (seated) was the oldest attendee at age 100.

Vinton’s Gladetown community held its biennial Gladetown, Carline, and Midway Reunion on the weekend of August 5 and 6. The tradition began over 25 years ago in 1992.

This year individuals came from New York, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, and Chicago. Casey Macauley’s nephew is from Sierra Leone in West Africa; he serves in the United States Air Force, and is on his way to deployment in Afghanistan. When he heard about the reunion, he wanted to stop by for the day.

In bygone years, there were three mainly segregated black communities in Vinton:  Gladetown, Midway, and Carline. Gladetown is located in the several blocks encompassed by Third Street, South Pollard, Franklin Avenue, and West Virginia Avenue.  Midway and Carline were located along Walnut Avenue. Midway is now mainly a white neighborhood. Carline disappeared with renovations to Walnut Avenue over the past30 years, but the Gladetown community has thrived.  In fact, new housing construction forced the community to hold the latest reunion a block or so down the street from where it was traditionally held at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Chestnut Street.

The biennial reunion was initially the result of a conversation between Joe Banks, Glen Thomason, and the Rev. Melvin Anderson.  In reminiscing about their years growing up in Gladetown, the men eventually settled on plans for a celebration of community and family that would not only be fun, but would also help to preserve the history and spirit of the community for younger generations.

They recruited Arthur Preston and a committee to help with the planning. Preston has been in ill health in recent years and was unable to attend this year’s reunion— although those who attended said he was there “in spirit.”

A large committee now plans the event, but it has a continuing role in the community, not just putting together the reunions, but keeping involved with, and keeping the community informed about, those who are ill and hospitalized, those who have passed away, special events, and holiday observances.

Harriet Childress, the corresponding secretary for the group, sends out announcements and invitations to former residents across the country in the summer before each reunion, always scheduled for the first weekend in August.

This year’s reunion included a picnic on Saturday (for fun) and a Memorial Service on Sunday afternoon (“to honor the people who went on before us and made our lives possible”).

Traditionally, dignitaries from the Town of Vinton and Roanoke County attend, including Vinton Mayor Brad Grose and Jason Peters from the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors. Vinton Council members Sabrina McCarty, Janet Scheid, and Matt Hare were also in attendance, along with Police Chief Tom Foster.

Foster and some of his officers brought their new Mobile Services Community Unit and distributed bicycle helmets to the children at the picnic. Mayor Grose said he has attended the reunion each time one was held.

Grose, in reading a proclamation in honor of the event, said how much the Town of Vinton appreciates the Gladetown community and the invitation to the grand celebration every two years. Peters noted how much he enjoys representing the county at the reunion and how much the community means to the area.

Each year, Joe Banks and Harriet Childress spend time creating a “Memory Wall” with photographs of residents and events, obituaries, newspaper clippings, and notices of academic and sports accomplishments.

Banks says that Gladetown came into existence when a number of families moved from farms in Franklin and Bedford Counties after slavery ended. The community is part of the old Vinyard Farm, which originally occupied much of the Town of Vinton.

Early residents came because of the job market in and around Roanoke City and often worked for the silk mill at the American Viscose plant in southeast Roanoke, Crozier Furniture, the brickyard, or the railroad. Banks’ family came to Vinton in 1904.

At the Memorial Service on Sunday, Frank Miller served as master of ceremonies. He remarked on the changes in the neighborhood, but that “it is still here, still standing.”

The service opened with singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” followed by a candle-lighting ceremony led by Harriet Childress, as the poem, “Memories of You” was read by Evelyn Macauley. Loved ones were remembered with the placing of white ribbons next to the candles, memorializing “those who paved the way for us.”

Deacon Harrison, a Gladetown native, offered up the Scripture selection— Psalm 27— and reminded the group that “God has been good to us.” Deacon Macauley thanked God for the neighborhood and for those who came before and the “sense of love they left behind.”

Many of the families in the Gladetown community have deep roots, living here all or most of their lives, anchored by families and lifelong friendships— a community of faith and strong family values.

During the program, the oldest attendees were recognized— Leslie Polk at age 100, Mary C. Stewart, 92, Virgie Craighead, a85, and Ronnie Banks, 82.

Glen Thomason, vice president of the Reunion Committee, introduced guest speaker Sandra Wright, who said growing up in the caring Gladetown neighborhood where the senior citizens had “laid an excellent foundation” for her and the other young people “gave them a good start in life.”

“We grew up amongst people who loved us,” said Wright. “We lived a good life; it was a privilege and an honor to grow up in this community. This community is a resource to carry on our foreparents’ names and wishes for us. They worked hard, sweated, and suffered so we could have a community. I thank the community for the wonderful life I have had.”

Thomason thanked the Lord for 26 years of good weather at each reunion; the residents who pull together for each reunion with donations; the Town of Vinton and Roanoke County; Arthur Preston for his guidance in the beginning and through the years in keeping the reunion going; for Chris McCarty and his father before him who have always provided resources, such as the tents, for the reunion. Thomason said the reunion committee is aging and hopes to attract younger people to carry on the reunion tradition.

He praised the efforts of the Vinton Breakfast Lions Club members who have been working since 2015 to restore the historic Gladetown Cemetery, which had become overgrown as the men in the community aged and were unable to take care of it as in past years. Joel Lytton of the Lions Club accepted a plaque from Thomason thanking the Lions for their continuing efforts.

McCarty and Lytton both spoke over the weekend about their hope that the cemetery can be re-dedicated at the next reunion in August 2019 with the restoration completed.