Historian spotlights Roanoke’s rich past surrounding Gainsboro Library

The library will host a free event on local Black history on Thursday at 6 p.m.

ROANOKE, Va. – Many people go to the library to read or hear stories, but one local library has its own.

Go back in time with the City of Roanoke on Thursday as it celebrates the reopening of the Gainsboro Library after it was closed for nine months due to renovations.

The Gainsboro Library was built in 1921 and moved to its current location in the 1940s. To commemorate its reopening, on Thursday, June 24, at 6 p.m. the library will host a guest speaker who will give insight on Black history in the Roanoke Valley during the 1940s and the stories of the people who walked through those doors all those years ago.

When it was built, the Gainsboro Library was one of only four African American libraries opened in the South during segregation. Former Roanoke Mayor, historian and author Nelson Harris studied the Roanoke Valley’s history through Roanoke Times and Roanoke Tribune articles to create his more than 600-page book, “The Roanoke Valley in the 1940s.”

“I think that the role the library has played, this library in particular is significant, and so the fact that we still have the structure not only is it good for historic preservation but because of the collection that it houses the history that it preserves, it tells, it continues of the legacy that is very critical to the city’s story and to the city’s history,” said Harris.

From art to the African American literature collection, Roanoke’s director of libraries Sheila Umberger said keeping the foundation of this library intact is something that isn’t taken lightly.

“We believe that one of the most important roles we can play is to preserve local history because that’s really the roots of your community,” said Umberger.

The branch reopened just last week with new carpet, new furniture, new technology, a redesigned teen and kids area and new ways to show the storied history — like panels of black and white photos taken in the library on the end of bookcases.

“This is also a place for us to tell the past but also look at the future and talk about all the richness of the neighborhood and contributions of the African American community in Roanoke,” Umberger said.

Harris hopes his lecture on local Black history and the library as a whole will help people connect the dots from the past to the present.

“There is a wealth of information for the general public to come and learn about the place that you live, the place that you grow up and I think anytime that we can come and learn about our past it serves us well as we move into the future,” said Harris.

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