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The Gainsboro History Project

Rev. A. L. James

Rev. Dr. Arthur Leonard James (1877-1968) is considered one of the most influential and beloved pastors in the history of the First Baptist Church of Gainsboro. From 1919 to 1957 his leadership was pivotal in growing the church and establishing many important initiatives. James was also a distinguished member of the Gainsboro community and played a pivotal role in the history of the neighborhood.

Portrait of Rev. James
Rev. A. L. James, Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries

Born in Madison, Florida, on August 1, 1877, Rev. James attended Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where he received his Doctor of Divinity degree. During World War I, he served overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces as secretary under the War Work Council of the Y. M.C.A.

First Baptist Church of Gainsboro

Rev. James was installed as pastor of First Baptist Church on October 1, 1919. He is credited with many accomplishments during his tenure as pastor, including the construction of the church’s Parish Hall, the installation of the church’s stained glass windows, founding the Daily Vacation Bible School, establishing the Men’s Club and the Helping Hands Club, and the publication of The Church News, which is thought to be the only Black newspaper in Southwest Virginia at the time. In 1930 Rev. James and the church’s senior choir began the “Black Home Devotional Hour,” a weekly radio broadcast. His leadership is also credited with growing the church’s membership to its peak of 2,193 parishioners.

Broader Public Service

Within the Gainsboro community, James was a prominent figure. In 1920 James established a committee of citizens, including Lucy Addison and Rev. L. L. Downing, as the Library Advisory Board, which worked to establish a library in the Gainsboro neighborhood for Roanoke’s Black citizens. At the time, it was one of only two libraries that could be used by African Americans in the state.

Among his other achievements, Rev. James was the second African American to serve on the Roanoke City School Board, he served as president of the Virginia Baptist State Convention, and was a trustee of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College of Lynchburg.

In 1957 after 38 years of service Rev. James retired. Highly regarded as pastor, Rev. James was known as a deeply devout man who spoke with conviction and was a gifted teacher and storyteller.

After his death on September 8, 1968, a Roanoke Times article noted that “Dr. James was in our book a true Christian gentleman who lived his religion, who loved his fellowman as he did his God. If Roanoke had boasted an outstanding citizen award, it long ago would have gone to him by acclamation.” — Roanoke Times (September 10, 1968)

See Also


Dr. A. L. James. (1968, September 10). Roanoke Times.

First Baptist Church. (1968, September). Funeral service for Dr. A. L. James. [Funeral program]. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.

Kern, J. R. & Pezzoni, D. (1990, August 29). First Baptist Church. [National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form]. Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Lee, V. Y. & Lewis, C. (1921-2009). Gainsboro Library Records [Special collection]. Gainsboro Branch Library, Roanoke, VA, United States.

New Journal and Guide. (1954, October 16). Dr. A. L. James observes an anniversary in Roanoke.

Poindexter, E. R. (1983). Journey of Faith: a history of First Baptist Church, Roanoke, Virginia. First Baptist Church.