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The Gainsboro History Project

Rev. L. L. Downing

Rev. Lylburn L. Downing  (1862-1937) was the minister of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for over forty years. He and his children were leaders in both Gainsboro and the greater Roanoke community.

Call to Ministry

Rev. Downing was born in 1862 in Lexington, Virginia, to Lilburn and Ellen Harvey Downing. The family was enslaved until the end of the Civil War. His father, Lilburn Downing, was a hospital steward at the Virginia Military Institute. Rev. Downing was educated in the public schools of Lexington and attended a Black-only Sunday School founded by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Lexington Presbyterian Church. Rev. Downing credited his Sunday School experience with putting him on the path to his ministry.

Rev. Downing studied theology at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and in 1894 became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. Later that year, Rev. Downing brought his family to Roanoke, and he became a minister at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a position he held until his death.

Portrait of Rev. Downing
Rev. Lylburn Downing. Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries

Civic Leadership

Rev. Downing was also a civic leader in Roanoke. He was a member of the Roanoke City Republican Committee for over twenty years, it’s only African American member. He served as a delegate to the Republican State Convention at least four times.

Rev. Downing was involved in putting the community’s youth on the right path. He served as Roanoke’s African American probation officer from 1916-1937, established an adoption service for African Americans in Roanoke in 1916, and was instrumental in the founding of a home for delinquent and transient girls.

In addition to promoting Red Cross and war bond fund drives during WWI, after the war he was appointed by the Virginia War History Commission to record the accomplishments of Black WWI soldiers from the Roanoke region.

Rev. Downing showed further commitment to educating subsequent generations as a member of the founding committee of the Gainsboro Library.  In 1927 a public school was named for him in his hometown, Lexington, VA. That building was closed in 1965 with integration, but he continues to be recognized, with the Lylburn Downing Middle School.

Rev. Downing’s sons, Dr. Elwood Downing and Dr. Lylburn Clinton Downing, were prominent healthcare workers in Gainsboro.

See Also


Blankenship, M. (2019). Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church: A church history. [Manuscript]. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.

Bynum, W. B. (2016). Lylburn Liggins Downing (1862–1937). Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia.

Freis, R. (1993, January 18). Window on the past. The Roanoke Times.

Freis, R. (2017, December). The Rev. Lylburn Downing:beyond blue & gray. Discover: History and Heritage. The Roanoke Times.

Twenty-fifth Anniversary–Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. (1919). [Program]. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.