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State and local officials gathered Friday morning at a ceremony to unveil and dedicate a state historical highway marker in honor of the Mary B. Yancey House and the Grasty Library.
The Yancey House once was as a lodging place for African Americans during the segregation era, while the Grasty Branch of the Danville public library system operated next door to the Yancey House and served black patrons from 1950 to 1969.
The marker, issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, stands at 320 Holbrook St. next to the Yancey House and the site of the library, which has been torn down.
“In the city of Danville, we have such a rich history and numerous sites that tell the story of African-American history,” said Karice Luck-Brimmer, who is a member of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources. “All of these sites are essential in telling the complete story — the story of our ancestors — by including their stories in the historical narrative of this country that they helped build. I am proud to say that in the past six years, 48 percent of our new markers involve African-American history.”
The aim of the state historical highway marker program is to link important stories about Virginia’s past to the landscape where they took place. Luck-Brimmer said each marker topic must display regional, statewide, or national significance. The information on the sign must be thoroughly documented.
The Mary B. Yancey House was donated by the family to Alpha Kappa Alpha in 2006. Today, the two-and-a-half story stucco building serves as the Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Alpha Phi Omega chapter’s sorority house.
Gayle Hunt Breakley, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Alpha Phi Omega chapter, said the house is available to the community for education, training and fellowship.
The house was listed in the "The Negro Motorist Green Book," which was published between 1936 and 1964 and used by traveling African Americans during segregation to locate a welcoming place for an overnight stay and a place to eat.
Traci DeShazor, deputy secretary of the Commonwealth and director of African American Outreach, talked about the house’s listing in the guidebook.
“There was a time when we as black Americans could not move around this country and even this community as freely as we do today,” DeShazor said. “There was a time when we had to do what we always do and that is be resilient and resourceful. There was a time when we had to use something called ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book.’ This house was part of that. … This is truly part of American history.”
Mayor Alonzo Jones thanked Cynthia Polk with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Alpha Phi Omega Chapter for penning and sponsoring this marker.
“This marker will serve as a constant reminder of what once was and what must never happen again,” Polk said. “Forgetting history can cause one to repeat the unpleasant portion of the past.”
Danville Public Schools Superintendent Angela Hairston talked about the site’s location in the Holbrook-Ross neighborhood, which was one of the first in Danville for African American professionals. The Holbrook-Ross Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved the marker in December 2019. The marker was erected in 2020, but unfortunately the pandemic would not allow a ceremony until now.
Virginia’s historical highway marker program began in 1927 and is considered the oldest such program in the nation.
Text of the marker:
Yancey House and Grasty Branch Library
The Yancey House (320 Holbrook St.) was a lodging place for African Americans during the segregation era. From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was listed in the Green Book, a guide to facilities that served black travelers. The house later became headquarters of the local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. From 1950 to 1969, the Grasty Branch of the Danville public library system, for black patrons, operated next door. After African Americans were denied service at the main library in April 1960, an NAACP lawsuit led to a federal court order requiring equal access. In response, the city closed the libraries. They were reopened on an integrated basis in Sept., but without tables and chairs.