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he Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920. By 1921, women everywhere were making their voices heard.
In Roanoke, one of those women was Sarah Poage Caldwell Butler. Sarah Butler trained in library science and worked as a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library before marrying physician William W. S. Butler Jr., and moving to Roanoke.
While the city fathers had been successful in attracting investors and industry, they had done little to address the city’s cultural needs and improve its public spaces. The city mothers, however, knew that sanitation, safety, good schools, playgrounds and cultural opportunities were equally important to the city’s future. In 1906, they formed the Woman’s Civic Betterment Club to tackle these issues. (Sarah Butler’s mother, Willie Walker Caldwell, was one of the organizers of the WCBC.) They commissioned studies and lobbied city council for improvements – with mixed results. But one successful campaign was for a public library.
Previous attempts to establish a free public library had failed. When Sarah Butler petitioned city council in 1920 for a free public library – pointing out that many cities and towns smaller than Roanoke already had one – council members were still unenthusiastic. Some didn’t see the need and others thought there was little public interest.
Possibly believing they were presenting an insurmountable hurdle, council members told Butler that if she could raise $30,000, the city would contribute the rest. In one week’s time (appropriately, Library Week April 19-24), Butler raised $27,000!
City Council, living up to its agreement, passed an ordinance creating the Roanoke Public Library, contributed $13,000, and donated use of the old Terry-Goodwin House in Elmwood Park as the library’s first site.
The library was dedicated on May 21, 1921. Butler presided over the opening ceremonies and accepted the keys to the library on behalf of the library’s board of directors from Mayor W. W. Boxley.
Butler also worked with black leaders, notably Miss Lucy Addison, Dr. Arthur L. James, and Dr. L. Downing, to secure funds and a location for a separate library in the Gainsboro community. The Gainsboro Branch library opened just seven months later, on December 13, 1921, in the Odd Fellows Hall at the southwest corner of Patton Avenue and Gainsboro Road.
Sarah Butler died on December 2, 1983, at age 91. In a 1971 interview, she stated that getting a public library in Roanoke was her proudest civic achievement.
Also in 1921: New Building, Tech Enrollment Up to 750
City Council approved plans to raze the old City Market Building, built in 1886, and build a new market house. Construction began in June, and the new building was completed on March 2, 1922, at a final cost of $210,000.
• The Virginia Branch of the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations (now the PTA) was organized and chartered in Roanoke on April 2. Mrs. Harry Semones of Roanoke was elected president.
• Virginia Polytechnic Institute marked its 50th year on September 21. Enrollment was estimated at 750 students.
• Roanoke Lodge No. 197 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks celebrated its 30th anniversary on April 12.
• Mayor W. W. Boxley announced construction of a seven-story office building at the corner of Luck and Jefferson. The Boxley Building was the tallest in Roanoke when it was completed in 1922. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
• Elizabeth College in Salem burned on December 22. Founded in 1910 as Oakmont College, the all-female institution merged with Elizabeth College and Conservatory of Music of Charlotte in 1915. Today, Roanoke College owns the property, referred to as the Elizabeth campus.
• The Roanoke City Mills, a flour-milling establishment on South Jefferson Street, announced that it would build a $100,000 addition to manufacture animal feed.