Remembering segregation in Roanoke and a place that brought hope

“The water fountain- black and white. It was not a very pleasant time.”
Published: Feb. 22, 2022 at 9:56 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Many cities in the South were segregated at one time. Roanoke is no different.

But there was one place in the city that not only instilled learning, but hope in Black children.

“I have very fond memories here,” said Roanoke native Mignon Chubb.

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” chimed in her older brother Richard Chubb.

They’re talking about the Gainsboro Library and a bygone era in Roanoke.

Their stories are like a page out of history, no book required.

Richard Chubb and his longtime friend Reggie Davis sat around a table at the library laughing as they talked about playing basketball together for then-Addison High School in 1954. It was a championship team, they said.

But not all the stories bring smiles. Some are painful, like the ones about growing up Black during segregation.

Richard Chubb talked about walking from the Gainsboro neighborhood into downtown Roanoke.

“Once you go to the Dumas Hotel there was a different thing when you crossed that bridge. You had to know how to put your hands behind you. You couldn’t play like other children,” Richard Chubb said. “You couldn’t go to the water fountain. They snatch you.”

“Going downtown-the water fountain black and white,” Mignon Chubb said. “It was not a very pleasant time.”

“It was like you always had to be careful,” Richard Chubb said. “Always.”

But there are other stories of a vibrant neighborhood where families and faith were strong. Everybody knew everybody else.

“Nobody was ever hungry,” Richard Chubb said. “You always had a garden.”

Businesses lined Henry Street. And the library on the corner- the Gainsboro branch- was a center of activity. It started in 1921 in the basement of the old Fellows Hall in what later became the YMCA.

It was the only city library where Blacks were allowed.

“I spent a lot of time here,” said Faye Claytor-Wood. “I would come over and sit and read books.”

Everyone who came here could tell you about the longtime librarian Mrs. Virginia Lee. “She was always so kind and courteous,” said Reggie Davis, who grew up just a few blocks away on Harrison Street.

“You came into the library quietly,” said Claytor-Wood. “I don’t care who you were.”

“Adults were people that had to be respected,” Davis said.

Mrs. Lee loved learning and instilling that love in children.

Claytor Wood grew up across the street. “I loved Nancy Drew mysteries. I couldn’t get them fast enough. And Mrs. Lee would call and let me know when she had one available,” recalled Claytor-Wood. “It was right here in the neighborhood and Mrs. Lee would pull the youth together. We did a summer reading program.”

It was Lee who was the driving force behind getting the library its own building. The branch opened in 1942. But Lee’s work went much deeper than brick and mortar.

She was a collector of books on Black history- books she bucked authority to preserve.

“During that time city council didn’t approve of that so they came in and got after her and told her to get rid of it.” said Mignon Chubb. “But… she put [the book collection] in the basement of the library to hide it.” “This was a source of giving us some inroads to our past,” Davis said. “Because if you didn’t come here to look it up, it certainly wasn’t taught in school.”

In what’s now the Virginia Lee Room, books of Black history line the shelves, including the Green Book, which was known as the traveler’s guide for Negros that highlighted safe places.

Claytor-Wood flipped through the pages until she found Roanoke.

“Right here’s Roanoke- Now these are the hotels- the Dumas, tourist homes was Reynolds,” Claytor-Wood said reading from the book.

For decades, this library was not just a place to check out books but a gathering spot and a place that instilled hope.

“It was a meeting place,” said Richard Chubb. “I met some of the best friends I had, even girlfriends.”

“This was a great hub right here,” said Davis.

Free kindergarten for Black children was held here and it was a spot where children could interact with successful Black role models.

“It was a place that gave me hope because when I could see doctors and lawyers coming in I said This is what I’d like to be like when I grow up,’” Richard Chubb said.

Chubb went on to become a teacher and a school principal.

He says still to this day he dresses like those men he saw in the early days in the library. He wears a three piece suit, a tie and a hat, even as he meets with old friends telling stories at the library on the corner.

“Good times,” said Richard Chubb. “They weren’t all bad. No, no.”

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