This undated photo shows longtime librarian Virginia Y. Lee at Roanoke's Gainsboro Library. Lee, and the library, are the subjects of a historical marker that will be unveiled on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries.

Roanoke’s Gainsboro Branch Library was the first public library for African Americans in western Virginia when it opened in 1921. Today, the library contains the largest Black history collection in Roanoke’s public library system, all thanks to the heroic actions of longtime librarian Virginia Y. Lee.

Lee and her impact on the library’s history are featured prominently on a new historic marker that will be revealed in a ceremony at the library at 4 p.m. Thursday. 

Its placement has been two years in the making, according to Gainsboro branch manager Megan Mizak.

The journey began in 2021, when Nelson Harris, a Roanoke historian and former mayor, identified the library as a viable candidate to receive a marker. He met with Mizak and local historian Jordan Bell to discuss the possibility. 

Roanoke’s Gainsboro Branch Library opened in its current location in 1942.

“There’s a rich, fascinating history to this library and to Virginia Lee’s story. We’re pretty excited to see it recognized,” Harris said. When he learned about the library’s history, Harris was impressed by Lee and her actions, given the times in which she lived, he said. 

The library’s story began with its conception. In 1920, 800 of Roanoke’s African American residents expressed interest in using a public library, according to library researcher and historian Laura Helton. There was no public library in Roanoke at that time, for either white or Black residents. Rather, this outpouring was in response to a state statute that authorized the establishment of public libraries, Helton wrote in an email.

Roanoke had been slow to offer public services to African Americans. The Harrison School had opened to all grade levels just four years prior, in 1917. The city would not build an accredited Black high school until 1928. But in December 1921, the city opened a library for African Americans in an old Northwest Roanoke storefront. 

The Gainsboro Library was the second African American library to open in the state, and the only one west of Norfolk, Harris said. Norfolk’s Blyden Branch library for African Americans had opened only five months earlier, according to the Norfolk Public Library’s website. 

Libraries for Black residents also existed in Louisville, Kentucky, and Atlanta, Georgia, according to Helton. The Gainsboro Library was the fourth built in the South, she said. 

The Gainsboro Library operated in its original location for 21 years. During that time, Roanoke resident Virginia Lee became its librarian, Harris said. She eventually became the library’s longest-serving librarian, working at the Gainsboro branch until 1971, he said.

Lee would have her work cut out for her. First, the library’s collection outgrew its building. Lee petitioned city officials to build a new African American library in the 1930s, according to Harris. 

The city went back and forth on the issue, Mizak said. Bonds were issued to pay for several construction projects, including Victory Stadium, an armory and a whites-only library in Elmwood Park. The new Gainsboro library received $20,000 towards building costs. By contrast, the main library in Elmwood Park was slated to receive $150,000. 

That $20,000 was only enough to construct the new library, Mizak said. There were no funds for the land, so Lee successfully petitioned the nearby St. Andrews Catholic Church to provide a place for the project, she said. 

The Gainsboro Branch Library opened in its current location in 1942, in a building fashioned in the Tudor style that was popular in the early 1900s. 

“From what I understand, Ms. Lee drew the initial idea of what she wanted the library to look like. She modeled it after the Tudor style of the Hotel Roanoke,” Mizak said. 

Soon, Lee found herself embroiled in controversy. In the library’s previous location, Lee had begun amassing a large collection of Black history books. She would use them in library displays that primarily featured African American history, Mizak said, citing a 2020 lecture by Helton. Those displays were soon deemed impermissible, according to Helton.

“[The city leaders] didn’t like that. They told her she needed to slow the pace,” Mizak said. Lee was threatened with unemployment for noncompliance after receiving a large donation of Black history books, she said. 

“Lee was compiling, collecting, protecting, preserving Black artifacts and literature and newspapers and whatnot, even when she was asked, ‘Don’t do this,’” Harris said. 

The push against Lee’s Black history books intensified. “The whole of Lee’s collection faced the threat of destruction,” Helton said in her lecture. Sometime in the 1940s, city leaders insisted that Lee remove certain books from the library’s collection. 

Instead of complying, Lee hid her large collection of Black history books and ephemera in the library basement, Helton said. The books remained available for patrons to secretly borrow. 

Shelving in the library’s basement is seen in this undated photo. Lee hid her collection of Black history books and ephemera in the basement rather than yield to a demand from city leaders that she remove some books from the library. Photo courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries.

“To save the collection then, she literally took it underground,” Helton said.

Over time, the books were returned to the main library shelves, Harris said. 

“Librarians are the keepers of records and documents. … What she did was tremendous, because if she hadn’t had that foresight, we wouldn’t have the collection that we have today,” Mizak said.

At the same time, Lee developed a thriving literary community. She hosted reading groups, organized lectures by African American intellectuals, and provided programming for children, according to Mizak. 

“She was taking the library and making it the intellectual, social, cultural, educational epicenter of the Black community during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s — during the era of Jim Crow and segregation,” Harris said. 

For him, Lee is the heart of the library’s story.

Between Lee’s Black history collection and programming for African American residents, the library became a hub of the community. 

“In the 1960s, this branch actually saw more usage than any other location because of their Black history collection,” Mizak said. That’s the same collection that Lee hid underground in the 1940s — the same collection she continued to grow in the decades that followed. 

In the 1960s, the collection helped educate the community regarding civil rights and human rights, Mizak said.

“I imagine that was one of [Lee’s] prouder moments,” she said.

Soon, the community will have a visual reminder of the library’s history. 

For the historical marker application, Harris compiled extensive research regarding the importance of the building, its history in promoting Black history and Lee’s corresponding work. He included Helton’s lecture on African American literary access restrictions and Lee’s role in maintaining a secret library in Gainsboro as part of the application process.

Nelson Harris and Megan Mizak in the Virginia Y. Lee Room at Gainsboro Library. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Individuals, private organizations, historical societies and local governments are among those who are eligible to propose new state markers. The topic of these markers must be a significant person, place or event that has statewide or national significance, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources website. 

To date, Harris has submitted applications for seven historical markers and worked to find funding for the installation of an eighth. And he has more in the works, he said.

Out of the 62 public applications that the state received in 2022, 38 were approved, according to program manager Jennifer Loux. Six additional marker topics were initiated by the Department of Historic Resources, she said. The competition has grown tighter in the past year.

In mid-2022, the department’s board adopted a new process for approving applications. Going forward, the board will only approve five new applications per quarter, to total 20 per year, according to Loux. 

The text of the Gainsboro Library historic marker

The new historic marker, which will be unveiled Thursday, 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.”

“Our committee thought it was important to educate the public about segregation in the public library system, the Black activism that brought about this center of intellectual and social life for the community, and the work of Virginia Young Lee, who kept the library’s collection accessible even when others tried to suppress it,” Loux wrote in a statement.

In addition to submitting applications for historic markers, Harris also secures funding for the markers. The Gainsboro marker has been funded by the Roanoke Public Library Foundation, Harris said. 

Highway markers currently cost approximately $3,000, and an additional $400 fee may be incurred for installation. 

The Gainsboro Library marker was approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources in December. 

The marker was produced by Sewah Studios, an Ohio foundry that has manufactured historical markers since the program’s inception in 1927. 

Thursday’s ceremony will be short, according to Harris and Mizak. Helton will travel to Roanoke from her Delaware home to attend the ceremony, they said. 

In the spring, she will return to Roanoke to give a lecture on her research at the Gainsboro Library. Her book, which will contain a chapter about Virginia Lee’s work at the Gainsboro Library, will be available at that time.

“So much of Roanoke’s Black history has been unrecognized and not celebrated. It is unknown. That shouldn’t be,” Harris said. 

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...