A brief, unofficial history of the History Project…
The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project was founded in September 2015 by a group of eighteen participants who initially gathered at the Roanoke Diversity Center, our region’s (relatively new, at that time) LGBTQ community center, for a workshop on LGBTQ history led by Dr. Samantha Rosenthal of Roanoke College. The participants came up with the name of the project, as well as the project’s first two mandates: to create a permanent regional archive of LGBTQ historical materials, and to create an oral history collection. We established the archives in partnership with the Virginia Room, Roanoke Public Libraries, with initial help from the Roanoke Diversity Center and Roanoke College, as well, in December 2015. The oral history collection began with an initial collection of fourteen interviews completed in the spring of 2016.
History project members next turned to interpretive activities, launching our first walking tour (the Downtown tour) in September 2016, as well as premiering our first online exhibition, “Coming Out,” also in September 2016. We held our first annual meeting / anniversary party at The CoLab in Grandin Village in September 2016, too. Busy month!
New initiatives over the years included revisions to the Downtown walking tour (2019) and the addition of two new walking tours, the Old Southwest tour (2017, revised in 2020) and Salem Avenue tour (2020); two new online exhibitions, “Finding Each Other” (2018) and “BLT” (2020); the development of The QTPOC Project (2017-2018); several gay historical re-enactments (2016-2018); interactive theater workshops at an LGBTQ summer camp (2017-2019); three issues of our Zine! (2017-2018); management of the Roanoke LGBT Memorial Library; and many, many more initiatives, both great and small.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we developed new digital initiatives, including a podcast, now streaming on all major platforms; and we migrated our digital archives to JSTOR and applied OCR (optical character recognition) to make our historic gay newsletters word-searchable. We also developed new partnerships, including with the House of Expression, the region’s first Ballroom house and first explicitly Black LGBTQ organization. It has been a wild and exciting ride!
The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project has received numerous awards and accolades, including the 2019 Unsung Hero Award from the Roanoke City Office of Neighborhood Services; the 2018 Heritage Education Award from the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation; and Honorable Mention for the 2018 Allan Bérubé Prize from the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender History. Research emanating from the project has also received the 2021 Article Award from the Oral History Association (co-winner) and Honorable Mention for the 2018 G. Wesley Johnson Award from the National Council on Public History. Dr. Rosenthal’s book about the project, Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in December 2021.
That’s enough for now. Make history with us! We meet every other month. Our meetings are always open to the public, and whoever attends makes the decisions regarding the future of our project. Come out and join us in making history.