The Shut Doors of Libraries

At the 2016 National Book Awards, the late Congressman John Lewis, being honored for the graphic memoir March: Book Three, spoke of being turned away, along with his sisters, brothers, and cousins, from an Alabama library in 1956. “And to come here and receive this award, this honor, it’s too much,” he concluded. Rep. Lewis’s mention of growing up “in rural Alabama, very, very poor,” allowed me to mistakenly frame his being sent out of a library as an isolated, rather than systemic, incident of racism. But really I should have known and understood how common those shut library doors actually were.

While researching my biographical poetry collection Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math, I read an account of how Katherine Johnson’s childhood library had encouraged her dreams. I love to write a good library poem. But as I began a stanza, my words bumped up against the fact that the Black mathematician who helped launch NASA astronauts had attended segregated schools in West Virginia. It made me wonder whether Johnson would have actually been allowed to enter the West Virginia library where her father worked as a custodian in the 1920s. Perhaps the beloved library she recalled was in the city her family later moved to specifically because it was one of two towns in the state where Black youth could attend high school. If so, that would be an entirely different poem, so I attempted to find out.

I phoned the library where Johnson’s father had worked and asked if someone knew when it had been integrated. I was told that it had never discriminated against patrons. I explained that I was looking back beyond this librarian’s personal memory. The answer was repeated, and then again by someone I queried at the town historical society. The unwavering tones alone, as if history were certain, made me doubt their stories.

History always moves. It doesn’t stop for convenience or pretty pictures. I finished writing Grasping Mysteries with no poem about young Katherine reaching across a library desk. But my questions about library exclusion lingered. They led me to read more about civil rights issues beyond lunch counters, schools, the backs of buses, and signs on water fountains and bathroom doors. I found The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism by library historian Wayne A. Wiegand and professor emerita of law Shirley A. Wiegand. The book chronicles widespread policies that long kept millions of Black people out of public libraries. The book also pays tribute to Black librarians such as Annie Watters McPheeters, who, despite having little childhood access to books, made careers for themselves devoted to opening doors.

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In the beginning of the twentieth century, steel magnate Andrew ­Carnegie established hundreds of what were called public libraries. In 1902, when one was opening in Atlanta, it was closed to Black people, the city taking refuge in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling stating the constitutionality of “separate but equal.” Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard, then teaching at Atlanta University, met with trustees to object. In 1904 Carnegie offered to fund a Black branch in Atlanta, but that library, the Auburn Avenue Branch, didn’t open until 1921. And unlike Atlanta, most towns would never be able to support two separate libraries, one for white patrons and one for Black patrons.

Annie Watters McPheeters never forgot walking up the steps of a library in Rome, Georgia, one day as a girl, only to be told by the white woman behind the desk: “Go back. You can’t come in here.” McPheeters left, carrying the stinging memory through college and into a segregated library school. After graduation, she drove a bookmobile in rural Georgia, and in 1934 she accepted a job in the (finally open) library on Auburn Avenue. She stamped books, straightened chairs, set up story hours, performed puppet shows, helped teach reading, secured grants to start adult education programs, and collected books about African American history and culture. She compiled newspapers and magazines written by and about African Americans, making it clear that what was happening in the present was part of history.

McPheeters also listened to jokes, book reports, and a boy who liked to insert words he’d just learned into conversations and to recite poems. One day he tried to check out books about Gandhi, which had been ordered for an adult discussion group. Children weren’t allowed to check out adult books, but McPheeters told him that if his father got a library card, he could use that. Martin Luther King Jr. used his father’s new card to borrow books about peaceful resistance — ideology that famously would become a core of his lifelong fight for civil rights.

And while a young Dr. King continued his education, the Negro Women’s Voters League met at the Auburn Avenue Branch Library to plan voter registration and join efforts to desegregate the Atlanta library system. In 1959, the thirty thousand Black voters whom the League had made sure got to the polls helped usher in a new policy on library desegregation. The moment was quietly triumphant. However, the integration of the main Atlanta Library was quickly followed by the closure of the Auburn Avenue Branch Library. Annie Watters McPheeters moved to the West Hunter Branch, then became a reference librarian and the first Black faculty member at Georgia State University, in 1966.

Years later, there and at Atlanta University, scholars and library students compiled oral histories and wrote papers about Black librarians. Wiegand and ­Wiegand drew on these to chronicle the hardships and triumphs in the years when, even with integration mandated, some white librarians refused to issue cards to Black patrons or banned them from using chairs and tables. Other white librarians furtively passed books through back doors (one in consort with a Black custodian) or arranged hidden places for reading. More change finally came about through sit-ins, ­read-ins, and picketing, often done by high school or college students, and church clergy and members.

Wiegand and Wiegand scoured databases and found little record of support from the American Library Association for such actions. The organization did not file lawsuits, publicize the protests, or offer aid to librarians who spoke up and lost their jobs and/or dealt with threats to their lives and homes. Not until 1961, after court-forced school integration began, did the ALA make a statement against segregation in its Library Bill of Rights. In their book, the authors noted that, to their knowledge, the ALA never publicly apologized for turning its collective back on the costs of segregation. In 2018, at the New Orleans convention, the ALA Council passed a resolution, which Wayne A. Weigand helped to write. The apology for the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, and inhumanity of racially segregated libraries” includes a list of wrongs that’s painful to read. I hope you do read the apology. Published by American Libraries magazine, it can be found at or by googling the title: “ALA Honors African Americans Who Fought Library Segregation.”

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We can cherish our well-worn library cards and also not foster the myth that libraries have always been good to everyone. If the respect of attention isn’t given to the recorded experience of Black librarians of the past, we can’t expect students from diverse backgrounds to trust present institutions. Future librarians should learn of the injustice of being refused use of a library, and also the courage and ­creativity of Black librarians who led libraries through segregation and into an era when they asked important questions such as: how do we desegregate library boards, hire Black librarians, make Black people know they’re welcome in places where historically they were shut out? These questions matter in a profession where, according to a recent ALA study, less than seven percent identify as Black.

In addition to celebrating awards named after civil rights heroes, we who are white should speak plainly about how for many years libraries were one more place Black people couldn’t enter. We should learn about segregated libraries that were excellent due to devoted Black librarians, as well as those comprised of discarded books that well-intentioned volunteers stacked in basements. All those who set out displays for Black History Month can feel good about themselves, but they should also know that Black librarians set out selected books first, often in segregated libraries — and not just in February.

History is made up of what’s lost as well as saved. Rep. John Lewis believed that our country would become stronger by facing the damage done by discrimination based on skin color. We can honor his work and also wonder if his sisters, brothers, and cousins ever comfortably entered that room full of books that they might open. Those who don’t consider libraries to be sanctuaries are important parts of history, too.

From the March/April 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jeannine Atkins

Jeannine Atkins

Jeannine Atkins is the author of Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math; Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner's Call to Science (both Atheneum); and other books in verse featuring women in STEM.

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Youme Nguyen Ly

Thank you for writing this.

Posted : Apr 14, 2022 05:57



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