“It was the only place we could go” Historical marker unveiled at Gainsboro Library

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 1:30 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Thursday a community library was recognized for the role it has played in a Roanoke neighborhood for more than 100 years.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, along with Roanoke City leaders, dedicated a historic marker to the Gainsboro Branch Library.

Founded thanks to Black activism, it was the first public library for African Americans in western Virginia and only the second such library in the state.

According to DHR, the library opened in 1921 in the Odd Fellows Hall at 446 Gainsboro Ave. NW and moved to its current location in 1942.

“The library became a center of Black intellectual and social life by hosting lectures, conferences, reading clubs, and exhibitions,” according to the marker.

Its longtime librarian, Virginia Lee, cultivated a regionally significant collection of Black literature - defying attempts by city officials to censor some of the material. She secretly collected and distributed the material from the library’s basement.

WDBJ7 spoke to Former Gainsboro Branch Manager Carla Lewis who knew and worked with Lee. Lewis said Lea was a great person who was firm and fought tirelessly for the community to have the space.

“I mean she would have programs reading programs. She would have all kinds of programs to make sure the community was involved and it was important. It was important for the community,” said Lewis. “We wanted it. We loved her. We loved the community. It was just something for us to enjoy.”

Lewis remembers the library as a safe place and community hub for Black Americans during segregation and Jim Crow.

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

The marker was dedicated Thursday at the library, located at 15 Patton Avenue NW.

Mayor Sherman Lea, Director of Roanoke Public Libraries Sheila Umberger, and Rev. Nelson Harris spoke at the event, highlighting the historical importance of the Gainsboro Library.

“It’s more than just a building,” said Lea. “It is a testament to the power of resilience and the enduring spirit of the Gainsboro neighborhood.”