They Wouldn’t Teach Us to Read, Now We Run Libraries!

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The first Black - and first woman - librarian of the Library of Congress did not assume her position until July 2016. But let’s be clear, we’ve been active in building, managing, and expanding libraries since their inception in the United States.

While we were prevented from learning to read or write while enslaved, secret schools and tutoring sessions allowed some of us to master the power of the written word and the pen. Once we assumed this tool, we never looked back - as we knew it held the key to our true freedom.

But the development of Black libraries, or libraries spanning the breadth of the Black experience through both fiction and nonfiction, would not come without a fight.

It wasn’t until 1828 that the Reading Room Society was founded as the first social library for African-Americans. Just three years later, and in the same city of Philadelphia, PA, the Female Literary Society was formed as the first social library for African-American women. Then, in 1833, the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons was organized as a literary society.  

By advancing community literacy, these groups played formidable roles in the development of reading and writing traditions. Between 1828 and 1841 alone, African-Americans established nine different literary societies. Usually centered in urban environments like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit, these societies provided a means for intellectual discourse and debate. They were also a place of literary refuge even when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized segregation of libraries in 1896.

However, it wouldn’t be until 1904 that a formal structure would be built specifically to offer public library service to African-Americans. That structure, at the rear of the Eighth Street Colored School, was formed as a one-room annex in Henderson, Kentucky.

There have been many notable advancements in Black libraries ever since. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which sits with prominence in Harlem, NY, began in 1926 with the personal collection of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. One year later, the first Negro Library Conference was held at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, and, in 1960, students held the first library sit-in in Petersburg, VA.

Libraries have not only been the setting for intellectual debate, civic disobedience, and community-building, but they have also housed the professional careers of notable African-Americans who have contributed to our community’s overall growth.

The library is a highly political space, and these librarians have taken on that charge by leading some of the most historical libraries in this country:

Edward Christopher (E.C.) Williams (1871 - 1929)

Williams was the first African-American professional librarian in the nation. He was head librarian at Western Reserve University and University Librarian of Howard University from 1916 to 1929.

Dr. Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889 - 1958)

Delaney was a pioneer in the field of bibliotherapy and organized the Veterans Administration Hospital Library in Tuskegee, Alabama. She would ultimately assume the post of Chief Librarian at the Veterans Hospital in 1923.

Elonnie Junius Josey (January 20, 1924 - July 3, 2009)

Josey was the founder of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (ALA) and the ALA’s second Black president (1984-85). He was also Professor Emeritus, Department of Library and Information Science, School of Library and Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh. His contributions to the The Black Librarian in America helped shed light on professional achievements often silenced by other industries.

Regina M. Anderson Andrews (May 21, 1901 - February 5, 1993)

Allied with W. E. B. Du Bois, Andrews fought for promotion and equal pay against entrenched sexism and racism. Andrews also played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance, supporting writers and intellectuals with dedicated workspace at her 135th Street Branch Library.  She attended Columbia University where she obtained her Masters of Library Science. You can find check out her full bio here: Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian

Arnaud Wendell Bontemps (October 13, 1902 - June 4, 1973)

Bontemps was the head librarian at Fisk University, a HBCU in Nashville, TN. Before assuming this position, Bontemps first completed his Master’s in Library Science at the University of Chicago. His scholarship and advocacy helped establish African-American literature as a legitimate arena and subject-area suited for preservation.

Want to know more? Check out this extensive timeline in library development for African-Americans. And, see why this social entrepreneur is bringing the only bookstore back to the Bronx.

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