Roanoke community members unveil historical marker for Gainsboro Library

The library opened in 1921, contains the largest Black history collection in Roanoke’s public library system

ROANOKE, Va. – The Gainsboro Library will forever be recognized through a new historical maker right outside the building.

Roanoke’s Gainsboro Branch Library was the first public library for African Americans in western Virginia when it opened in 1921. It was one of the very few libraries built in the South.

The library contains the largest Black history collection in Roanoke’s public library system. The collection wouldn’t have been made possible without the relentless actions of longtime librarian Virginia Y. Lee.

Carla Lewis used to be the branch manager for the Gainsboro Library. She is also one of the few people to have met Lee in person.

“She worked so hard and she went through so much to try to establish this collection and keep it that she almost got fired for having it. So she had to hide the books in the basement,” Lewis said.

Roanoke had been slow to offer public services to African Americans. The Gainsboro Library was not just a place for Roanoke but for all of Western Virginia.

“It wasn’t just any place, it was the only place that we could go to get information to satisfy our questions … determined to get to know the people in the community. This was the place,” Lewis said.

Lewis and many others were in attendance for an unveiling of a historical marker outside the library on Tuesday.

The marker reads:

“The Gainsboro Branch Library, founded as a result of local Black activism, was the first public library for African Americans in western Virginia and the second in the state. It opened in the Odd Fellows Hall at 446 Gainsboro Ave. NW in Dec. 1921 and moved here in May 1942. The library became a center of Black intellectual and social life by hosting lectures, conferences, reading clubs, and exhibitions. Librarian Virginia Young Lee, who served from 1928 to 1971, developed a regionally significant collection of Black literature, history books, and ephemera. Defying city officials’ attempts to censor some of this material in the 1940s, she continued to make it accessible in the library’s basement.”

Nelson Harris, a Roanoke historian and former mayor, identified the library as a viable candidate to receive a marker while he was writing a book of his. He hopes the library becomes a point of interest for not just Roanoke but also people visiting the city.

“Stop! Read it! Learn about Virginia Lee and this library and say to themselves ‘Gee I never knew that’. If I can have folks do that as a result of this marker … mission accomplished,” Harris said.


About the Author

Connor Dietrich joined the 10 News team in June 2022. Originally from Castle Rock, Colorado, he's ready to step away from the Rockies and step into the Blue Ridge scenery.

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