Ella Graham Agnew (1871-1958)
Ella Graham Agnew was born on 18 March 1871 at Roseland, the family home in Prince Edward County, Virginia. She was the ninth of ten children born to Dr. James Anderson Agnew (1828-1879) and Martha Chaffin Scott Agnew (1832-1872). While Ella was still an infant, Roseland was destroyed by fire, prompting the family's move to Burkeville, Nottoway County, Virginia. Her mother died in 1872 after giving birth to Anne Virginia, known as "Jean" (1872-1944). In 1877, her father married Elizabeth McLean (d. 1918), who raised Ella after Dr. Agnew's death in 1879.
After taking stenographic courses at Smithdeal Business College in Richmond, Agnew held secretarial positions at Stonewall Jackson Institute in Abingdon, Virginia, and a Long Island, New York, publishing firm. In 1895, she accepted a job as business teacher and secretary at the Huguenot Seminary in Paarl, Cape Colony, South Africa. She remained in the country for five years, spending the second two as principal of the Amajuba Seminary in Wakkerstroom before the Boer War forced its closing. She finished out her time in the country aiding the Boers and the American Consulate with clerical, administrative, and nursing work.
Back in the United States, Agnew worked successively as a teacher in Virginia, an office manager in New York, and general secretary of Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) chapters in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Toledo, Ohio. Returning to Virginia in 1910 to begin a program of vocational education for rural girls, Agnew was soon named the first female home demonstration agent in the country. When the Cooperative Extension Service was started in 1914, Agnew was named a home demonstration agent for Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Tech) - the primary USDA land-grant institution in Virginia. After ten years as a home demonstration agent, she left this role and worked for the finance department of the Y.W.C.A. National Board, 1920-1927, and as the first female editor at the Southern Planter magazine "Woman's Department" section, 1927-1931. Ella Agnew was presented the VPI Certificate of Merit in 1926 - the first woman to receive this award. From 1933-1943, Agnew headed the New Deal relief activities for women with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and its successor, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.). When the W.P.A. was disbanded in 1943, she retired, but continued to be involved in civic affairs.
Ella Graham Agnew died in Richmond on February 5, 1958. She is buried in Sunset Cemetery, Burkeville, VA.
Built in 1940, Agnew Hall was named for Ella Graham Agnew in 1949. It was the first building on the Virginia Tech campus named for a woman. That was quite appropriate because Ella Agnew was Virginia Tech's most famous woman. The building originally housed the Home Economics Department. That department left Agnew Hall years later and moved to Wallace Hall. Along with the department went the Virginia Tech official portrait of Ella Agnew. Moving the portrait was critical to its preservation because Agnew Hall was a dank and dark place until it was renovated in 2009. After the renovation, the painting was moved from storage in Wallace Hall to a protective case on the third floor of Agnew Hall to once again remind the public the building's very famous namesake.