Dr. Ghislaine Lewis, associate professor of communication studies and co-chair of the Africana studies program, now has a leading role in a local nonprofit that’s diving deep into stories of the city’s Black citizens.
Lewis became director of the Pierce Street Gateway at the beginning of the year in a collaboration between the nonprofit and the University. Founded in 2018, the nonprofit is centered around what’s now an unassuming, blocky yellow building at the corner of Pierce and 13th streets — the old Calloway Store.
Opened in 1877 by William Calloway, the store was a fixture in Lynchburg’s history and the center of a neighborhood where Black residents and visitors raised each other to new heights. Having fallen into disrepair, community leaders formed the nonprofit in hopes of reviving the building as a historic tourism spot and community center.
Lewis was familiar with the neighborhood from her days as a student at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, when she first visited the home of Anne Spencer, a Harlem Renaissance poet who’s among the most famous Pierce Street residents.
Spencer’s family has been entwined with the Calloway Store three doors down the road: her husband co-managed the store and ran it independently after Calloway died, and her son Chauncey (an aviator who helped pave the way for creation of the Tuskegee Airmen) bought the building back into the family decades later to stabilize it.
Those stopping in the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum have plenty of family history to chew on there. But beyond the Spencers’ legacy is a wealth of underexplored stories stemming from the “old store” and the neighborhood it served.
Uncovering that history is part of Lewis’ and the nonprofit’s goal, ultimately culminating in opening a museum in the store.
“That’s going to be the hub where visitors are introduced to all of these notable people — and not-so-notable people — who lived on Pierce Street,” Lewis said. “We want to be able to tell the stories of the neighborhood.
“There’s so many stories to be told outside of the Anne Spencers and the Whirlwind Johnsons,” she continued, referring to Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, another Pierce Street groundbreaker who trained tennis phenoms Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
Lewis’ role was made possible by financial support from several sources, including a donation from University of Lynchburg Board of Trustees member Stewart Coleman ’86, who had been involved with the Gateway since its inception.
Coleman said Pierce Street is an ideal catalyst to grow and develop education on important local history, and is vital to economic development through tourism for the Central Virginia region.
Along with paying homage to the neighborhood’s past residents, the Gateway aims to provide support for its current residents.
To that end, Lewis helped coordinate the opening of a community garden in the fall, having noted that there wasn’t much access to fresh produce in the area. Working alongside a team out of Leadership Lynchburg, a regional group that trains professional and community leaders, they took input from neighbors on what to grow there and enlisted volunteers to ensure smooth access to the fruits of that garden.
“I think it’s really important that we create that space where people can start to come together and get to know each other,” Lewis said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people in the neighborhood, and one thing you keep hearing is that the neighborhood’s changing.
“Even in a changing neighborhood, you want people to be able to get to know their neighbors — and what better way to do that than to hang out and garden on a Saturday morning?”
It’s a new season for that garden, and a new season for the Gateway.
Lewis said the nonprofit is moving forward with its four-year strategic plan and has recently received bids for an addition on the property that would complement the historic building with public amenities like bathrooms. The Gateway aims to bring new visitors to the “old store” by 2026.
Westover Fellows got their hands dirty working on the community garden in the fall. More recently, Bonner Leaders and other volunteers came out on Feb. 12 to start getting the beds ready for spring planting.
That’s just one form of University collaboration Lewis said will be coming out of Pierce Street Gateway, with plenty of others in research, outreach, marketing, museum studies, and beyond.