The first known school in the area for African-Americans was the 1872 Old Lick Colored School, located in a modest log building on Diamond Hill, where the Civic Center now stands. Other schools for blacks included the Gainsboro School (at Gainsboro Road and Rutherford Avenue) and the Gregory School operating in Northeast through the early 20th century. In 1916, the Roanoke School Board authorized the construction of the Harrison School, which opened the following year on Harrison Avenue. It was the first school in Southwest Virginia to offer a secondary education for blacks.
Following a petition from black leaders, the Gainsboro branch of the Roanoke library system opened in 1921 in the Odd Fellows Building on Gainsboro Road; it was one of only four black libraries in the South at the time. Twenty years later, a new library facility opened on Patton Avenue, on land acquired from St. Andrew's Catholic Church. This historic library still serves the community and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Lucy Addison came to Roanoke from Northern Virginia in 1887 and taught in Roanoke City Schools for forty years. She was the first principal of the Harrison School, which grew to become the largest black school in Virginia. Addison served on the Library Committee and was
instrumental in convincing the Roanoke Library Board to open a library branch on Gainsboro Road. She was vice president of the Burrell Memorial Hospital Association and the Sunday School superintendent of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. In 1928, a new high school for blacks was built and named in honor of Addison; the building still stands northwest of the I-581 and Orange Avenue interchange.
The Gainsboro LibraryIn the late 1930s, the Roanoke Library Board began discussing a potential bond issue to finance simultaneous construction of a new Gainsboro branch library and a new main library building in downtown. Two years later, however, the Library Board reneged, recommending the Gainsboro branch simply expand to another room of the Odd Fellows Hall. Black leaders addressed the City Council, saying a new Gainsboro library building had been promised, and that black voters would not vote for the bond issue without it. City Council yielded, allocating a small portion of the bond to the Gainsboro library construction. The bond issue passed, and the new Gainsboro facility was designed within its small budget. However, the main library facility's construction required supplementary funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) , a program which was frozen ahead of World War II. The Gainsboro library was completed and opened by 1941, while construction of the
main library was set back for a decade!