The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has announced it will add seven new historical markers around the state, including ones in Roanoke and Franklin County.
The Roanoke marker is for the Gainsboro Branch Library, the first library for Black Virginians west of Richmond. During the 1940s, the Gainsboro librarian secretly kept books and other materials that city officials attempted to censor. That marker was sponsored by former Mayor Nelson Harris, who has been instrumental in getting other markers in the Roanoke Valley approved, mostly recently the one to Olympic gold medalist Norvel Lee in Botetourt County. See background story: “Nelson Harris is Roanoke’s historical marker champion.”
The Franklin County marker is for the community of Ferrum, detailing the community’s history and the growth of Ferrum College.
Here’s the full list of markers as described by the Department of Historic Resources:
1.) Flights to Freedom
People enslaved in Mathews County and environs repeatedly seized opportunities to escape, taking advantage of the area’s long shoreline and access to deepwater shipping. Some who fled to British ships during the Revolutionary War received certificates of freedom, served with the British forces, and later settled in Nova Scotia. Enslaved people fled during the War of 1812, and at least 70 found freedom with the British in March 1814. During the Civil War, self-emancipated people boarded Union vessels, and some enlisted in the U.S. Navy. These recurrent flights from bondage, made at great risk, defied the system of slavery and demonstrated the depth of enslaved peoples’ desire to be free.
Sponsor: Mathews County Historical Society, Inc.
Locality: Mathews County
Proposed location: 9654 Buckley Hall Road
2.) Emancipated Community at Chimborazo Hill
Formerly enslaved African Americans found community at this site following the Civil War. Under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Chimborazo Hospital buildings abandoned by the Confederates became a refugee camp in mid-1865, providing limited food, shelter, clothing, and support. Schools within the community were well attended, and by July 1865, the camp was home to more than 2,500 people. Throughout the year, freedpeople faced violent harassment from white Richmonders. After confrontations in March 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau ordered able-bodied men to vacate the camp by 1 April 1866. Some residents remained at the camp until the City of Richmond cleared the site for a park in 1877.
Sponsor: 1708 Gallery
Locality: City of Richmond
Proposed location: 3125 E. Broad St.
3.) Gainsboro Branch Library
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.
Sponsor: Nelson Harris
Locality: City of Roanoke
Proposed location: 15 Patton Ave. NW
4.) Christian Home School
African Americans prioritized education after Emancipation, and many attended one- or two-room schools built alongside churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Christian Home School was built eight miles south of here, near Christian Home Baptist Church, in 1926-27. Funding for the one-room building came from the Black community, Isle of Wight County, and Julius Rosenwald, whose partnership with Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute led to the construction of more than 5,000 schools for African Americans across the South. An addition to Christian Home School was built ca. 1932. This addition was moved to Smithfield in 2005 and opened as the Schoolhouse Museum in 2007.
Sponsor: The Smithfield Museum Foundation
Locality: Town of Smithfield
Proposed location: 516 Main St.
Ferrum (Latin for iron) developed ca. 1892 along the new Roanoke and Southern Railway linking Roanoke, VA, and Winston-Salem, NC, known as the “Punkin Vine” line. The village became a regional shipping hub early in the 20th century. St. James Methodist Church (ca. 1896) is Ferrum’s oldest brick building. The Virginia Methodist Conference, at the initiative of its Woman’s Missionary Society, established Ferrum Training School in 1913 to educate mountain children. The school grew into Ferrum College and the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum. During Prohibition, a number of Ferrum residents were involved in a lucrative illegal whiskey conspiracy that ended in one of the longest trials in VA history.
Sponsor: Blue Ridge Institute and Museum
Locality: Franklin County
Proposed location: Franklin St. (state Route 40) near intersection with Fieldcrest Road
6.) Woodland Cemetery
Woodland Cemetery was dedicated on 30 May 1917 as a grand resting place for Richmond’s African American community. John Mitchell Jr., newspaper editor and civil rights activist, led the effort after the closure of the Barton Heights Cemeteries nearby. Among those interred here are formerly enslaved people, military veterans, and community leaders. Prominent individuals include the Rev. John Jasper, founder of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, public health activist Dr. Zenobia Gilpin, architect Charles T. Russell, and humanitarian and tennis champion Arthur Ashe. After the cemetery fell into disrepair in the late 20th century, families and volunteers labored to restore it to its original condition.
Sponsor: DHR (with partner Henrico County Department of Recreation and Parks)
Locality: City of Richmond
Proposed Location: 2300 Magnolia Road
7.) Edna Lewis (1916-2006)
Edna Lewis was born here in Freetown, a community established by people emancipated from slavery, including her grandfather Chester Lewis. She learned to cook from her family using local meat and produce. In 1949 she became the chef and a partner in New York’s celebrated Café Nicholson. Lewis later cooked in other elite restaurants, where Black female chefs were rare. As the author of four cookbooks, including the seminal Taste of Country Cooking, she generated national interest in southern cuisine and in fresh, seasonal ingredients. She received an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University and in 2014 was depicted on a U.S. postage stamp. Lewis is buried in a family plot near here.
Sponsor: DHR (with partner Orange County Department of Economic Development and Tourism)
Locality: Orange County
Proposed Location: 14311 Marquis Road, Unionville