When I met the Rev. Noel C. Taylor at the Roanoker Restaurant in the summer of 1993 (I believe), I knew he was significant figure in the Roanoke area, but I was too young to appreciate just how significant a figure he was. As we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, today is also a good time to reflect on the life and legacy of one Virginia’s own Civil Rights icons.
The Rev. Taylor was born in Moneta, Virginia in 1924. He completed his education in Bluefield before leaving the Commonwealth to fight in a segregated army during the Second World War. After the war, Taylor obtained a degree from Bluefield State College and returned to teach in the segregated school system of his native Bedford County. Eventually, though, Taylor felt a higher calling in life and again left our Commonwealth, this time to pursue a degree in religious education from NYU.
Rev. Taylor became the pastor of Roanoke’s High Street Baptist Church in 1961, a position he would hold with honor for the next 37 years. From his pulpit, Rev. Taylor worked to increase inter-faith understanding in Roanoke, serving as the first African-American president of the Roanoke Valley Ministers’ Conference.
Perhaps, though, Rev. Taylor’s most lasting impact came during the Civil Rights movement. While Dr. King, Medger Evers, the Freedom Riders and thousands of others were working to end segregation across the South, Rev. Taylor worked to desegregate Roanoke. He was a key figure in the struggle to integrate the city’s transit service, lunch counters and public schools.
After the Voting Rights Act assured the right to vote for millions of African-Americans, Rev. Taylor broke more ground by becoming Roanoke’s first African-American city councilman. He became the mayor of Roanoke in 1976 and with it, one of the nation’s most prominent black Republican elected officials.
Rev. Taylor’s love for his adopted city was obvious to all. He oversaw multiple revitalization efforts throughout his tenure, several of which gave the city its current look.
I only met Rev. Taylor once, yet even from our brief encounter, I was struck by his politeness. Politics is known for being rough-and-tumble, yet Rev. Taylor was quite possibly the most courteous, gentlemanly politician I have ever encountered. Whether in his struggle for equality or his campaigns for reelection, Rev. Taylor exhibited that same soft-spoken gentleness that I saw after Sunday lunch. It’s little wonder, then, that the city he served for 17 years and the congregation he led for 37 was devastated when the cancer he battled returned in the late-1990s.
Rev. Taylor departed this life in 1999, yet his legacy as a civic and Civil Rights leader lives on to the people of Roanoke.