Sad fact: For the most of the twentieth century, the American Library Association (ala) chose to look past the issue of racially segregated public libraries in the South rather than confront, challenge, or even discuss it. Not until the early 1960s did a few vocal members of the nation's library community outside the association's control force ala to finally address the issue. Recounting the history of this neglect is not only instructive, but also essential to understanding subsequent ala history on race issues.

In its first century of existence, the American Library Association (ala)—established in 1876—had a mixed record on issues of race and the civil rights of African Americans, including the years between 1954, when the country began experiencing a decade of violent reactions in the South that were occasioned by the Supreme Court's landmark decision on school segregation declaring the “separate but equal” doctrine invalid, and 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Before 1950 the existence of segregated public libraries in the South—now so well recounted in Cheryl Knott's Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (2015)—was largely overlooked in the library profession's press and research.1 That same neglect was manifest in the decade thereafter, and not until some library leaders forced ala to confront the issue of race did the association finally respond.

Historically, this negligence is not hard to document. Before the turn of the twentieth century, for example, one looks in vain for discussions of race and libraries in ala conference proceedings. In March 1899, however, as the association planned its annual conference for Atlanta (first time it met in the Deep South), a member asked about a session on public library services to “Negroes.” ala president William Coolidge Lane of Harvard was cautious. “I am somewhat afraid to tackle [it] & sh'd not want to say anything about it at present,” but as a potential speaker he did suggest W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard graduate who at the time was an Atlanta University professor. Conference planning committee member Anne Wallace, Atlanta ymca Library director who had just asked Andrew Carnegie for a public library building grant, objected immediately. “To bring it in its crude shape before the national association, where partisans could make political capital out of it, would prove inimical to both white and negro interests.” Days later Lane wrote ala officials that “the question of … the Negro in Relation to Libraries, we will leave untouched altogether.” Wallace had reason to be concerned. On April 23 a black man was lynched in nearby Newman for killing a white person (many blacks said in self-defense). Two thousand people watched, many arriving on a special excursion train from Atlanta. Several in the audience tore the body apart after the victim died; one Atlanta grocery store owner proudly displayed the victim's knuckles in his store window.2

In coming decades ala continued to look past Jim Crow practices. Just after World War I ala executive secretary Carl Milam told members from the South that the Carnegie Corporation had conceded to their position on race issues and now required communities seeking grants to base their appropriations “only upon the white population of the towns.” Milam was also quoted as saying the idea that “negroes have the right to ask for the privileges” of a Carnegie library was a “misconception.”3 In 1922 interested parties organized an ala “Work with Negroes Round Table” that met for two conferences and did a survey of public library services to black Americans, but little else. The Round Table did not survive the decade.

In 1925 the Carnegie Corporation announced it would follow an ala recommendation to fund a library school at Virginia's Hampton Institute to train black librarians for the “colored branches of city library systems” across the country.4 New York Public Library Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints director Ernestine Rose (white) and Howard University's E. C. Williams (black) protested strongly, albeit privately, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), arguing that “before long colored librarians from all parts of the country would be debarred from the regular schools and shunted off to Hampton,” which would “probably mean a lower standard at the school … and a distinct disadvantage to colored librarians.” The naacp agreed, and protested to ala and the Carnegie Corporation against a “segregated library school.” Despite naacp opposition, however, the Hampton school opened in September, and during its thirteen-year lifetime graduated students who took jobs mostly in southern segregated and northern ghettoized public libraries serving black patrons.5

In 1936, just prior to an annual conference scheduled for Richmond, Virginia, ala officials circulated a letter indicating its black members could attend, but would be seated in segregated sections of meeting rooms, would not be permitted to attend meal functions or visit conference exhibits or register for conference hotel rooms. After the conference, black librarian Wallace van Jackson wrote Library Journal: “The segregation of Negroes” at ala meetings was “a shameful slide backward. What is worse, no single meeting or group at the Richmond conference so much as brought up the matter for discussion to say nothing of passing a resolution of protest.” The New Republic projected the matter to a national stage. “The explanation is made rather plaintively that these restrictions were not the fault of the ala, but part of a law of Virginia. Query: Why should any civilized association, with Negro members, undertake to hold such a convention in Virginia or any other state that makes such distinctions?” Clearly embarrassed, the ala Council passed a resolution that “in all rooms and halls assigned” to ala “for use in connection with its conference or otherwise under its control, all members shall be admitted upon terms of full equality.”6 The resolution represented the first time ala took a public position against race discrimination.

At its June 1939 annual conference, ala approved a “Library Bill of Rights” (lbr) largely as a reaction to pressure brought by right-wing groups “objecting to what they called ‘subversive’ literature in public libraries.”7 Principle no. 1 read: “Books and other reading matter selected for purchase from public funds should be chosen because of value and interest to people of the community, and in no case should selection be influenced by the race or nationality or the political or religious views of the writers.” Principle no. 3 read: “Library meeting rooms should be available on equal terms to all groups in the community regardless of their beliefs or affiliations.”8 Yet when five black teenagers conducted a protest at the all-white Alexandria (Virginia) Public Library two months later, neither the library press nor ala saw segregation as an issue addressed by the Library Bill of Rights, and made no mention of the incident in their publications.9

Although all state library associations sent appointed members to ala conferences as chapter representatives, southern black librarians were generally not permitted to join those associations. As a result, some black librarians organized their own associations and applied for separate chapter membership. In 1943, for example, the North Carolina Negro Library Association became the ala's first black chapter. In the mid-1950s ala took a stand against this practice by stating only one association per state could have representation in ala, and that association had to admit all members who applied, regardless of race. Some complied; North Carolina's black association dissolved when the ncla agreed to admit black members in 1955. Others, like Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, continued to refuse membership to black librarians and thus lost their ala representation. But ala also showed it had learned a lesson in 1936; in 1954 it rejected Miami Beach as a conference site when it appeared blacks would be discriminated against in conference facilities. Two years later, however, ala did meet there, once assured local hotels and restaurants would not segregate its members.

Despite a growing number of protests against segregation in southern society in the 1950s, however, the library press largely overlooked Jim Crow public library practices. Not until 1958 did the subject heading “Segregation and the Library” appear in Library Literature Index, and not until public library protests in 1960 in Memphis, Tennessee, Greenville, South Carolina, and Petersburg and Danville, Virginia—years after civil rights protests began appearing on the front pages of the nation's major newspapers and became lead stories for major network evening news programs—did the library profession begin to focus significant attention on the issue.10

After the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, Atlanta University library school dean Virginia Lacy Jones began encouraging her students to write master's theses on race issues in individual public libraries of the South. Scores did. Although most theses were identified in Library Literature, they were almost never cited, and thus probably seldom read beyond examining committees consisting of black Atlanta University library school faculty members. One can imagine the sense of frustration Atlanta students and faculty felt as they shared findings, and their disappointment with a profession that claimed to be in favor of free access but did little to bring it about in the South. The soaring rhetoric about intellectual freedom and opposition to censorship that resonated in ala conference speeches did not match the reality they experienced and the research they generated.

In the late 1950s ala's Intellectual Freedom Committee (ifc) members quietly asked several librarians from the South if an ala statement supporting public library integration would be helpful. Their responses showed the limits of what the ala could do. “One of my chores has been to keep publicity about this situation at a minimum,” said one librarian managing an integrated library. “I believe the answer to the question of extending use to the Negro race in communities which are still segregated is through the Negroes themselves…. No amount of speaking or beating of the chest by ala will do much to aid and abet such a situation.” A librarian managing another integrated institution noted: “Such a statement would stir up the rabble rousers, a noisy minority in the South, which would interrupt the rapid progress being made.” Said a state librarian from the South: “Statements by outside agencies such as ala will do more harm than good because they are deeply resented and further inflame already hot tempers. We fervently hope that such a mistake can be avoided.”11

But events forced ala to act. An excerpt from the ala Executive Board minutes for March 27, 1960, reads: “It was suggested that ala will sooner or later be asked to state its position on the situations reported in Petersburg, Virginia, and Memphis, Tennessee, related to integration…. It was recognized that the Association while striving for service cannot, nor does it attempt to, intrude on local jurisdiction.”12 On May 17, 1960, the board appointed a special “Committee on Civil Liberties” to “recommend an ala policy statement on the civil rights of individuals to have access to libraries and the resources contained therein.”13

With the issue now a subject of ala conversation, in his September 1960 issue Wilson Library Bulletin editor John Wakeman addressed what he saw as ala's record on race and libraries. Starting with shifting the Miami Beach conference from 1954 to 1956—“a complete success,” he labeled it—he also noted how the North Carolina Negro Library Association had quietly dissolved in 1955 because the North Carolina Library Association had agreed to integrate so ala would retain it as the Tarheel State's only ala chapter. “Surely then,” Wakeman concluded, “ala's record is that of an organization opposed to segregation, and as effective as its structure permits.” For fear of retarding integration and making it more difficult for southern librarians opposed to segregation, he advised against “intervention in local situations.”14

Wakeman's editorial, which had followed private conversations about ala's position on segregated libraries in the South with Library Journal (lj) editor Eric Moon, sparked the latter to react. In a December 15, 1960, editorial he entitled “The Silent Subject,” Moon noted that “segregation and integration are two words which appear not to have crept into Library Literature.” “A vacuum,” Moon called coverage of the subject. To fill some of that vacuum and start a professional dialogue, Moon published in the same issue an article entitled “Segregated Libraries” by Rice Estes, black librarian at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute who was born and raised in South Carolina and who had suffered many of the humiliations Jim Crow imposed on black people.

Estes' words were sharp and to the point. “So far no library association seems willing to do anything about the most pressing domestic issue the nation faces today, the integration and education of our Negro citizens,” he said. “Instead, librarians are piously declaring that they will not become involved in local problems. The term ‘local’ is never defined.” Estes noted how librarians were ready to organize a book campaign for residents of Ghana, but when denied service in Danville, Virginia, black people “were left without a librarian's voice lifted in their behalf.” “As effective as its structure permits?” he quoted Wakeman. “I challenge this statement.” Millions of black Americans living in the South were denied access to public libraries that their taxes helped support, and the ala “has been completely ineffective about the issue. It has never even passed a resolution on the subject. It has never commended the efforts of Negro readers and organizations who have tried to end library segregation by doing everything from making a mild request to staging library sit-ins. It has not attempted to bring a law suit or lent its name as amicus curiae to any group bringing a suit.”

He recalled visiting a southern library recently, where he asked a white librarian how blacks were serviced. “Oh,” she responded, “they are not interested in reading.” Had she never read Richard Wright's Black Boy, he wondered, especially the part where he describes how because of the color of his skin he had to obtain books from the Memphis Public Library in the 1920s by subterfuge? “If only this passage could be reprinted and sent to every trustee of every library in the South, surely fruit would be borne.” At the end of Estes' article, Moon reprinted the Black Boy passage Estes referenced.15

Moon's editorial and Estes' article effectively initiated a debate in librarianship, and for the next several years—as news of protests and demonstrations against segregation of public facilities in the South saturated the media—ala discussion of “integration” took priority over “censorship” as a professional issue. “I, for one, was only vaguely aware of the existence of segregated libraries in the South, and was astounded at the extent of the problem,” California Librarian editor W. R. Eshelman wrote in his January 1961 editorial. “Yet the subject of segregated libraries is rarely discussed and virtually unmentioned in our professional literature. If federal funds are being used to extend segregated library service, we are compounding the problem.”16

In its February issue lj published a “selection” of scores of letters to the editor. “Orchids to Mr. Rice Estes,” wrote one Virginia librarian. Estes' article “left me with a very guilty feeling about my own individual failure to speak out against segregated libraries,” said an Ohio librarian, “and I am sure many other librarians feel the same way.” “I salute the editor of Lj and Mr. Rice Estes for their criticizing the pussyfooting of the ala on the issue of segregation,” wrote a Rutgers University librarian. “That this subject has first been broached in Library Journal rather than in the ala Bulletin should, I think, cause some room for thought by American librarians,” argued a California library director. Ruth Brown, at the time Sterling (co) public library director who had been fired as Bartlesville (ok) public library director in 1950 for efforts to desegregate public facilities there, asked, “How can a librarian read” Richard Wright's Black Boy “and not be influenced, and how can anyone fail to see that freedom to read must include all who have that desire? I could not see then and have never understood why the ala carefully seemed to avoid this angle.”

“How can an issue on which the United States Supreme Court has taken action be regarded as ‘local’?” asked an Ohio librarian. “It is embarrassing and humiliating to think of our allegedly progressive profession sitting on the side lines in agreeable politeness throughout this period of national shame since 1954,” said the Yale University Library director. Joseph Wheeler, Enoch Pratt Free library director, welcomed the “fresh breeze” that “blows through” lj's December 15 issue. “Oh my, I've spent 58 years listening to the smug librarians who don't want to change.”17 Wheeler said nothing, however, about interviewing black children's librarian Augusta Baker in 1933, when he “made it very plain that they weren't hiring Negro librarians…. Our interview wasn't the happiest one,” Baker later recalled. Nor did he mention that a year later the library opened separate “Colored Men” and “Colored Women” washrooms because whites complained about sharing toilets with blacks.18

Evidence strongly suggests this criticism of ala was justified. Discussion of integration in the ala Archives is thin. During the 1950s the ala Bulletin editor said nothing about desegregating southern public libraries, “perhaps under orders from the executive director of the association, an unrepentant southerner,” W. H. Eshelman later speculated.19 While the ala and its ifc carefully watched book-censorship activities in southern libraries and corresponded with white librarians running them, existing correspondence shows ala officials and southern librarians very seldom referenced issues of segregation except for some discussion of eligibility of black librarians for membership in state library associations. Part of the problem was confusion surrounding the issue of professional jurisdiction. For example, although the ifc decided to collect data on segregation in southern public libraries in fall 1959, and the following spring sought similar data from the South's state librarians, ifc chair Archie McNeal nonetheless felt “the committee was functioning outside the scope of its original charge and beyond the limits of the Library Bill of Rights.”20

At its 1961 midwinter meeting, the ala Council accepted a recommendation from its special civil rights committee and adopted an addition to the lbr: “The rights of an individual to the use of a library should not be denied or abridged because of his race, religion, national origins or political views.” In his March lj editorial, Moon welcomed the discussion, applauded the lbr change, and called for a survey that would give the ifc more information on segregated libraries. “Surely, here is a worthwhile project for the Council on Library Resources [clr], one which is at least as important as the kind of charging machines libraries should use,” he wrote. “The clr financiers, the Ford Foundation, whose declared objective is ‘to advance human welfare’ might well see this as an advance toward what” a Ford Foundation vice president “recently called ‘the ideal library of the future.’”21

Behind the scenes, however, ala officials scrambled. Much of the news about libraries across the nation in the 1950s came to ala from news clipping services and because sit-ins and demonstrations at public libraries were often not covered in white-owned southern newspapers, ala officials had difficulty following events. But even direct communication often failed. “In the case of the Danville, Virginia, Library,” the Intellectual Freedom Newsletter editor wrote McNeal on January 12, 1961, “I did not succeed in obtaining information from the librarian, who declined even to send me clippings.”22 To McNeal, ala deputy director Grace Stevenson wrote on March 28, 1961, “I understand that you are writing an article for Library Journal around the subject of ala's civil rights activities. Would it be possible for us to see a copy of this article for our information? We have been a little concerned about lj's treatment of ala's activities in the field of civil rights over the past several months.”23

In its May issue, the Wilson Library Bulletin opened its pages to several black librarians. All recommended more action in the form of programs, workshops, publicity, resolutions to local library officials, and the possibility of withholding federal funds to localities using them to support segregated library practices. “Conditions can not improve until ala takes strong action to present itself as a model in democratic practices and until the leaders in the profession can do likewise,” said Virginia Lacy Jones, who not only cited many of the details her students had uncovered in research on their master's theses but also noted that her request for membership in the Georgia Library Association had again been denied. “ala needs to be less fearful of offending by making its influence felt at the local level.” She also called upon ala headquarters to hire black people “above the clerical level.”

“Every profession at one time or another must endure the test of its convictions, and this will often involve grave social and moral issues,” said Miles M. Jackson of the Hampton Institute Library. “Librarianship, up to this time, has managed to skirt many such issues by ignoring them. But the time has come for the profession to be tested on just how sincerely its members believe in the philosophy that supposedly guides them.” Hempstead (ny) children's librarian Spencer Shaw noted that only two months separated ala's modification of the lbr and the beating of black Americans at a hearing for students arrested at a Jackson (ms) public library sit-in. “Clearly, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Are we ready to pick it up?”24

The act of picking up the gauntlet brought different responses, however. Although former ala Bulletin editor Beatrice Rossell thought “our northern communities are too far from being ‘without sin’ for us to indulge in self-righteous stone-throwing at anyone,” she hoped “ala leaders will not ignore the Jackson library situation, or take the easy path of considering it ‘local.’ It is of national and world-wide importance, as are all these racial incidents today.”25 But in his June editorial the current editor complained about “a small but vocal element of the membership” demanding “the ala become a crusading agency.” He supported the lbr modification, but after citing previous ala actions on race issues, quoted from the ala charter and constitution (both documents crafted in the late 1870s) and concluded: “It is clear … that the Association exists to further the development of libraries, not to regulate the manner in which they are operated”26—a line of logic that, ironically, could also apply to the Library Bill of Rights.

“After reading your editorial concerning ala and the segregation issue in the June Bulletin, I have decided not to renew my membership,” wrote University of Vermont cataloger Paul K. Swanson to ala executive secretary David Clift on June 21, 1961. “I do not wish to belong to an organization which on the one hand affirms the rights of all to the use of libraries and with the other cooperates with those who deny those rights…. Someday the battle against segregation in libraries will be won. When that day comes ala can claim very little credit for winning.” In the ala Archives a note is attached to this letter from Clift to Archie McNeal dated November 17, nearly five months later: “I am enclosing a copy of this letter that I received last June from Paul K. Swanson. I keep looking at it every other day or so to see what kind of a reply might be made and so far I haven't come up with anything that would be useful to say or helpful to him. Any ideas?” If McNeal answered, the Archives does not have his letter.27

lj editor Moon did complain publicly, however. “lj, we have been told, has been unnecessarily harsh in its criticism” of ala. “It is all too easy for a large organization to become so enmeshed in procedural and constitutional problems that it reaches the point where the rule book governs the association rather than the reverse.” Moon also quoted Idaho State College librarian Eli Oboler: “If ala ‘was not designed to do and by its present nature and structure cannot do’ those things which its membership want it to do as relates to segregation, then the major and urgent and vital task for the Association now is to change the nature and structure of ala to conform to its membership's wishes.”28

In September the US Civil Rights Commission called for congressional action to withhold federal funds under the Library Services Act from states using those funds to maintain segregated library services.29 In December lj published a survey of twenty-two national professional associations to compare them against ala on attitudes toward segregation. “ala seems to be well above the middle range of the professional associations in statements of policy,” its author reassured readers, “as well as in some of the actions already taken and now under consideration.”30

At its 1961 summer conference in Cleveland, the ifc sent two recommendations to the ala executive board. The first called upon the board to make sure state chapters were meeting ala requirements by admitting all applicants for membership. (Because the Alabama and Georgia library associations refused to admit blacks at the time, they were not ala chapters.) The second recommended that no library be given membership if it “discriminates among users on the grounds of race, religion, or personal beliefs.” Thereafter the committee polled fourteen chapters (twelve state, two regional) primarily from the South to see “whether Negroes are eligible for membership” and “whether any Negroes are members.” All fourteen reported they did not restrict on the basis of race, but because an unnamed three said they had “no Negro members at the present time,” the ifc concluded: “It appears equally clear that some of the chapters involved are not providing their members with the fundamental rights of membership.”

When the board took up the recommendations at its 1962 midwinter meeting in Chicago, members balked at the first recommendation because it “will surely force the withdrawal or expulsion of some chapters” who operated under laws over which they had no control, and would bring a “concurrent loss of many personal members in the states affected.” In addition, ala members from the South, the board said, were “making significant contributions to librarianship,” despite social customs and legal constraints. Therefore, the board concluded: “Should the ala, by drastic action, separate these chapters and personal members from ala, breaches in understanding and professional relations might be created that would require years to heal.” The second recommendation was equally troublesome. “Such a provision would surely … cause a regrettable and on the part of the libraries affected an unwilling loss in ala membership and support.” Thus, rather than impose “presently impossible-to-meet conditions on all libraries,” the board recommended ala Council issue a “Declaration of Belief, Encouragement and Confident Expectation” that public libraries in the South would soon desegregate, and after the ifc also endorsed it, provided a draft for council consideration.

At the meeting at which council considered the draft, one member complained about the “short notice” given council and called for a stronger statement. “I am not asking for punitive action,” she said, “but for leadership.” Another argued the declaration “is a monstrously cynical statement, a confession of moral bankruptcy.” The New Orleans Public Library director, on the other hand, said the statement “will not change one blamed thing anywhere.” Another councilor condemned the declaration's “weasel words.” Virginia Lacy Jones, the only black librarian to speak at the meeting, called the statement weak. It reads as if “ala is fearful of losing membership in the South and the financial support of the South,” she argued. After what lj called “much parliamentary confusion and a vigorous though meandering discussion,” the council voted three-to-one to “recommit” the declaration to the executive board for further study and possible revision at the summer conference. “A bouquet to the ala Council for their refusal to rubber-stamp the highly dubious statement,” Moon wrote. “Brave statements, unsupported by action, can only provoke those in the South who oppose integration and irritate those who are working towards it,” said the Wilson Library Bulletin's Wakeman.31

After the January 1962 midwinter conference the executive board appointed a subcommittee to revise the statement, and the council ultimately approved a statement at its summer conference on June 19 that called “on individual members of ala to work for an end of discrimination in libraries and in ala chapters,” the Wilson Library Bulletin explained. “It lists the rights of members of ala chapters to certify that these rights are guaranteed to their members, it urges institutional members (libraries) to end discrimination among library users, and states the Council's intention of pursuing ‘with diligence’ a proposed study of access to libraries.” One ala member noted the document was more “tightly organized and concise” than its predecessor and, regarding chapter status, “it proposes concrete action.” At the same conference ala announced it had gathered sufficient funds to engage a nationwide study on access to public libraries.32

In his April 1963 issue, Bay State Librarian editor John Berry III asked if the eleven southern libraries receiving ala-administered library awards were “segregated.” He said he had contacted the Southern Regional Council about these libraries, and received the following response: “Our files show no record of desegregation at any of the libraries cited in your letter. We assume, therefore, that they are still segregated.” With this statement in hand, Berry concluded: “We violently oppose any award to strengthen institutions which maintain a system of service that in any way separates one citizen from another in his use of books. We ask the question in the sincere hope that every library and system involved can and will truthfully answer with a resounding ‘no!’ to separation, segregation, and unequal library service. Can we expect a reply?”

Because Berry made no attempt to contact the eleven libraries prior to publishing the editorial, lj did, supplying each with a copy of the editorial and requesting a response. From the responses, lj reported, two evaded the question, but “seven denied unequivocally that they were segregated,” some in colorful language. “I'll be damned if I'll answer [Berry's] editorial question,” said the Beaufort (sc) County Library director. “The principle of ‘assuming a fact without any evidence’ is something I deplore,” said the North Arkansas Regional Library director. “Unfortunately racial strife will continue so long as people, expecting the worst, act on someone's assumptions instead of fact,” argued the Plant City (fl) Public Library director. “As I write from a desk in our library,” wrote her board chairman, “I see in the reading room almost as many Negro patrons as white ones, and they have been coming ever since the library first opened its doors for service, and without incident!” Of the respondents only the Jackson Parish (la) Library admitted segregated services that, the librarian wrote incredulously, were “designed for the use of all citizens. The same staff—trained bookmobile librarian and clerk-driver—operate two bookmobiles, one of which is devoted exclusively to the service for Negroes, with a collection selected to appeal to their interest and informational needs.”33

By the time lj published the article, ala had met for its summer conference in Chicago, where it eagerly awaited the results of the survey work the association commissioned the International Research Associates (inra) to conduct. But the results of the study that surveyed 1,789 library systems nationally (22% of the total)—issued in the form of a seven-page digest to a packed room at the conference—were not what most librarians expected. “This research project is highly unusual insofar as it is a self-audit by a professional group in the very delicate area of civil rights,” the study began. ala's “position … in this area has been emphasized by a revision of its Bill of Rights.” Yes, inra concluded, direct racial discrimination did exist in southern public libraries, in 1963 more in rural areas than urban. In twenty-one Deep South public libraries in cities of at least 50,000 only five had fully segregated systems. At the same time, nineteen still had segregated school systems, thus demonstrating that public library integration greatly outpaced school integration, most “with a minimum of disturbance.” The study also reported that “the rate of library integration is also affected by the generally low priority accorded to it by the leaders of the Negro community, as compared to the fields of voting, housing, education and other public facilities.”

At the same time, however, when considering the physical location of branch libraries and proportion of resources allocated to them it also became obvious that public libraries across the country—south and north, east and west—engaged in “indirect” racial discrimination. “In Philadelphia, a white neighborhood is six times as likely to possess a branch library as is a predominantly nonwhite section,” the report noted. “In Detroit, twice as many branches are located in white neighborhoods as in Negro neighborhoods, and these branches contain more than one and one-half times as many books as those in predominantly non-white areas.”

After hearing the word “indirect,” audience members scrambled for microphones located in the aisles to object to the term in a cacophony that followed. That the report highlighted Detroit and Philadelphia—two systems run by former ala presidents—may have been coincidence, but both directors protested. Philadelphia's Emerson Greenaway took issue with “assumptions” in the report. Detroit's Ralph Ulveling was more forthright. “You've made some very serious charges about this city,” and accused the inra of using “old statistics which don't show the true picture…. This is a most damaging kind of thing.” But Virginia Lacy Jones spoke in favor of the study. “No one should be surprised,” she said, that branch libraries across the country discriminated against black people. All public institutions “had discrimination against Negroes built into them. This fact is well known in the South; it is time the North woke up to it.” “It was notable,” the ala Bulletin later observed, that at the session “not one question was asked about any of the ten principal findings” of the report, “and that only one criticism was made—of number three”—the one referencing “indirect discrimination.”34

After the full inra report was published in August, lj opened the pages of its December 15 issue to a forum on the study that consisted of eleven statements and an editorial.35 Several contributors groused about methodologies, others were more forgiving. “Almost invariably, libraries reflect the neighborhood served rather than the ideals of librarianship,” wrote one. “The report has exposed a ghost in our purpose. This ghost is known by many aliases: apathy, cowardice, conformity, weakness, lack of political imagination, expediency, ignorance, inability, security, and defeatism.” The forum included three black library professionals. Virginia Lacy Jones noted that the master's theses her students had written “reveal that [black] branches not only have an insufficient quantity of books, but that the quality of the materials is often inferior in terms of scope of subjects included and recency of publications.” “A monumental document,” black librarian E. J. Josey called it, “that stirred up a hornet's nest in Chicago” where, “strangely enough,” he teased, “the most vehement denunciations … came from the North and not the South.” About the study he was most disappointed at the comments of the “timid lot” of southern librarians that reflected a “poverty of values” and convinced him “that the keepers of knowledge in these communities are not concerned about providing library service to all citizens.”36

The same issue carried an article by Bernice Lloyd Bell, whose research was based on her Atlanta University master's thesis. In her summary she reported the progress made that was also evident in the Access study. She did not mention the fact that what little existed as a research base on library services to black Americans was little read, was written almost entirely by blacks, and the vast majority of that literature came from master's degree students at a black southern university. As a group, white library researchers at any level—student, library school faculty member, or professional librarian—were almost entirely absent—a telling example of the limits of the library profession's discourse in the middle of a civil rights revolution.37

Those limits were also evident in private communications. For example, when Virginia Steele organized a Community Center Freedom Library in Greenville, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964, she wrote Mississippi Library Commission director Lura G. Currier for help. When she received no response she wrote Grace Stevenson at ala, who forwarded publications designed to help start a library. In her response, however, Stevenson added: “I think you can understand why it is not possible for Mrs. Currier, who has labored valiantly for years to improve library service for all the people of Mississippi, to become involved with your program in any way.” A day later Currier and Steele did have a phone conversation, after which Steele wrote Currier: “Just a note to thank you for the phone conversation yesterday, and the background of your struggle for library service. My impression is that you're doing an heroic and brave job.”38

As more public libraries in the South integrated, it became obvious the library press had finally taken notice—Library Literature cited fifty-six articles under “Segregation and the Library” for 1961–1963—but thereafter, as more and more Jim Crow libraries integrated, the subject heading disappeared again in 1965. Most professional attention was instead redirected at denying segregated library institutions and segregated state library associations the privilege of ala membership. After 1966, however, by which time all southern state library associations had been integrated, the subject quietly slipped into ala history. One librarian concluded in 1968: “The American Library Association has probably done as much as it can to enforce non-discrimination among its members.”39

Ultimately, little that the ala, its members, or any other state and national library organization or association did or said about segregated public library practices in the South had any impact at the local level. In his study of Alabama libraries Toby Graham writes: “For both black and white librarians, there were social, economic, and even physical dangers associated with open opposition to the prevailing racial order.” White southern librarians who agreed with or supported the desegregation of public libraries ran the risk of being called “nigger lovers”—an epithet that threatened to separate them from friends, family, and community. “The library organizations at the state and national levels had less to fear, but they were also unprepared to forcefully address issues as complex and as emotionally charged as race relations. Librarians lacked a tradition of organized resistance and were wary of becoming entangled in social issues of ‘local’ concern.” Graham concludes that events in Alabama “demonstrated that the efforts of black protesters were ultimately more important to the cause of equal access to public libraries than the impulses of librarians on the state and national level to fulfill their professional values.”40

Graham's conclusion is equally valid when applied to librarians across the country. In the early 1960s librarians carped at each other about right and wrong moves, and many expressed righteous indignation about the manifestations of segregated libraries. Always, however, they spoke from the periphery of desegregation activities. Although lj editor Moon later recalled a few unpleasant encounters at ala conferences with “three or four lady battle-ax state librarians, all from the South” who opposed his civil rights positions on public libraries, these encounters seldom left conference hallways.41 Few librarians were ready to put their lives on the line for the cause; few had suffered Jim Crow humiliations as a routine way of life, walked up public library steps through hostile white crowds carrying bats and clubs and shouting “Nigger,” sat in libraries before the eyes of angry white librarians and their white patrons, or were arrested on site only to be walked back through (and occasionally beaten by) those same crowds and carted off to jail for their actions.

While the southern public library as a physical structure has since the 1960s offered welcome platforms for racial reconciliation,42 the library profession as a whole does not appear to have internalized into its collective memory the deeply painful experiences desegregating public libraries brought to black people in the American South. To demonstrate I offer three examples.

First, as part of the “Libraries and the Life of the Mind in America” series of lectures that ala sponsored for its centennial year in 1975–76, eminent black historian John Hope Franklin—who in the 1950s had to turn down luncheon invitations from fellow researchers at the Library of Congress because nearby restaurants denied him service—delivered an address entitled “Libraries in a Pluralistic Society.” American librarians “have many reasons to be pleased with their contributions to the life of the mind in the United States,” he said, but Franklin also reminded his audience that Carnegie had been complicit with local southern whites who segregated their public library services. And “until the recent cases involving public education and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he noted, “public libraries in the South and in the ghettos of the North were not serving in a manner to promote the healthy growth of a pluralistic society.” He concluded by calling on the profession to recognize its flawed history as a way to help it live up to its high ideals.43

Yet less than two years later ala's Office of Intellectual Freedom released The Speaker, a film that depicted a fictitious high school group's contested decision to invite a controversial eugenicist (based on the real-life Stanford University scientist William Shockley) who believed black people were genetically inferior to whites to speak on their campus. When ala members previewed it at the annual conference “not a person moved,” recalled ala executive director Robert Wedgeworth. Reaction was so intense it “pitted friend against friend; colleague against colleague.”44

On one side were members who argued the film represented a good way to generate discussion about the importance of defending intellectual freedom. They were led by Judith Krug, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native who had received a library science degree from the University of Chicago in 1962 and spent several years as a reference librarian in the Windy City before becoming ala's first director of the newly created Office of Intellectual Freedom in 1967. She held an absolutist position on people's right to free access to information—no matter how controversial—and a commitment to link that position with ala policy and librarianship's professional practice. She did not, however, have any personal experience in Deep South Jim Crow practices as a librarian or patron, or any direct experiences with the way ala dealt with the issue of segregated public library services before the 1960s.

On the other side were members who said the subject of the film was probably racist, certainly highly insensitive. Among them was ala Black Caucus organizer E. J. Josey, born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, and from 1959 to 1966 chief librarian at the historically black Savannah State College. At the 1963 ala conference, he had objected vehemently when ala sought to honor the Mississippi Library Association's journal, and cited the fact that no black Mississippi librarians were allowed to be members of that association. Another was Clara Stanton Jones, Detroit Public Library director who, as the association's first black president, presided over the 1977 conference. Jones had grown up in the 1920s in segregated St. Louis, in the 1930s was educated at Spelman College in segregated Atlanta, and spent the early years of her professional career serving as an academic librarian in segregated New Orleans.

Both Josey and Jones had directly experienced the humiliations Jim Crow forced on black lives, and both had witnessed ala's tepid response to segregated public library systems in the American South throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Did these experiences cause Josey to refer to The Speaker as “that goddamned film” and ground Jones's thinking when she accused the oif of being “insensitive”? That Josey and Jones had lived as black people in the Jim Crow South—and Krug did not—helps us better understand reasons behind the positions both groups took on the oif film. And that's a major reason recounting this chapter in ala history is not only instructive, but also essential for understanding the association's record on issues of race.

Second, when I told a couple of colleagues from other institutions in the South several years ago that my wife Shirl and I were working on a book about the desegregation of public libraries in the American South, one asked: “You mean southern public libraries were segregated at one time?” Another wanted us to lecture to his Intellectual Freedom class about the heroic defense he assumed that public librarians put up against segregated services. Both had absorbed professional myths and assumed that librarianship's twenty-first-century rhetoric about opposing censorship, defending intellectual freedom, and offering neutral service to all people characterized its entire history.

Third, on July 11, 2010, four members of the “Greenville Eight” who had conducted a sit-in at the Greenville (sc) Public Library fifty years earlier met to celebrate and reminisce. “In this place of hope, 50 years ago we found rejection and degradation,” said life-long civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, one of the original protesters. “We persevered—and now America is better off for it.” When it was brought to his attention that the public library had no permanent marker to commemorate the bravery of the Greenville Eight, Jackson expressed regret; he hoped that would be corrected.45

Over previous decades members of the media (national, state, and local), local and state governments, business leaders, professional associations, and civic organizations of all kinds have apologized either for previous racist behavior or for doing little or nothing while black people were beaten, jailed, and sometimes killed for standing up for their civil rights. Library associations, including the American Library Association, have never done that, in large part, I suspect, because most white librarians living today do not know the history recorded in this article. It's long past time that library organizations and individual libraries do something to recognize the black kids—now senior citizens for those still alive—who literally risked their lives to integrate libraries. Perhaps the American Library Association can start the process by encouraging libraries to recognize them in a commendation to their courage to be posted on the wall next to copies of a Library Bill of Rights that provided them no support in the 1960s.


This essay is taken from a book-length manuscript authored by Wayne A. Wiegand and Shirley A. Wiegand, and entitled “Open These Hallowed Doors: The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the American South.” It is currently under publication consideration by a university press.


Cheryl Knott, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015). See also Patterson Toby Graham, A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama's Public Libraries, 1900–1965 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), and John Mark Tucker, ed., Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship (Urbana: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, 1998).


William Henry Beer, letter to Anne Wallace, February 6, 1899, New Orleans Public Library Archives, New Orleans, la. Letters: Anne Wallace to Henry J. Carr, March 7, 1899; William Coolidge Lane to Carr, March 30, 1899; Carr to Lane, March 30, 1899; Wallace to Carr, April 1, 1899; Carr to Wallace, April 4, 1899; and Lane to Carr, April 15, 1899, all in Henry J. Carr Papers, American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois (collection hereafter cited as “ala Archives”). See also Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 404–6. I have been unable to determine if Du Bois knew he was being considered to lecture at the conference.


“Letter to the Editor,” State (Columbia, sc), June 22, 1919.


“The Library: New Developments in Training for Librarianship,” Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 1926.


“Memorandum on Efforts to Establish Segregated Training School for Librarians,” August 25, 1925. Letters, Walter F. White (naacp Assistant Secretary) to ala President Charles F.D. Beldon, August 28, 1925; White to Frederick Keppel (Carnegie Corporation President), August 29, 1925; all in Box C-204, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers, Manuscripts Reading Room, Library of Congress. See also S. L. Smith, “The Passing of the Hampton Library School,” Journal of Negro Education 9 (January 1940): 51–58.


Wallace van Jackson, “Negro Segregation,” Library Journal 61 (June 1936): 467–68; editorial, New Republic 87 (May 20, 1936): 30.


“U.S. Libraries Demand Freedom of Choice of Books,” Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 1940.


Intellectual Freedom Manual, 5th ed. (Chicago, American Library Association, 1996), 6–7.


For a complete account of the Alexandria sit-ins, see Brenda Mitchell-Powell, “A Seat at the Reading Table: The 1939 Alexandria, Virginia, Public Library Sit-in Demonstration—A Study in Library History, 1937–1941,” PhD diss., School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, Boston, MA, 2015. Not until 1962 was the library fully integrated.


Susan Lee Scott, “Integration of Public Library Facilities in the South: Attitudes and Actions of the Library Profession,” Southeastern Librarian 18 (Fall 1968): 162.


These letters quoted in Archie McNeal, “Integrated Service in Southern Public Libraries,” Library Journal 86 (June 1, 1961): 2045–46.


ala Executive Board Minutes, March 27, 1960, ala Archives, Series 69/2/6, Box 1.


ala Adopts Integration Statement,” Wilson Library Bulletin 35 (March 1961): 486.


John Wakeman, “Segregation and Censorship,” Wilson Library Bulletin 35 (September 1960): 63–64.


Eric Moon, “The Silent Subject,” Library Journal 85 (December 15, 1960): 4436–37; Rice Estes, “Segregated Libraries,” Library Journal 85 (December 15, 1960): 4418–21. See also Kenneth F. Kister, Eric Moon: The Life and Library Times (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2002), 154–76.


W. R. Eshelman, “Editorial,” California Librarian 22 (January 1961): 23–24. See also William R. Eshelman, No Silence! A Library Life (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1997), 145–47.


“Readers' Voices,” Library Journal 86 (February 15, 1961): 730–35.


“Pratt Library Stoops to Jim Crow,” Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), May 19, 1934. Baker quotation in Miriam Braverman, Youth, Society, and the Public Library (Chicago: American Library Association, 1979), 227.


Eshelman, No Silence!, 147.


See, for example, “Jerry” of the New Orleans Public Library to David Clift, March 11, 1963, regarding efforts to ban The Last Temptation of Christ, in ala Archives, Series 69/2/6, Box 1. McNeal quote in Archie McNeal, “A New Statement and Its Significance,” ala Bulletin 56 (July 1962): 623+.


Eric Moon, “A Survey of Segregation,” Library Journal 86 (March 1961): 1110.


Everett T. Moore, letter to McNeal, January 12, 1961, ala Archives, Series 69/2/6, Box 1.


Grace Stevenson to Archie McNeal, March 28, 1961, ala Archives, Series 69/2/6, Box 1; Kister, Eric Moon, 161.


“Segregation in Libraries: Negro Librarians Give Their Views,” Wilson Library Bulletin 35 (May 1961): 707–10. “When the dean of a library school is refused membership in her own state library association it is hard to believe that there can be any other reason than racial discrimination within the profession,” Eric Moon wrote. “Perhaps even before we can hope to be very effective in removing discriminatory practices from our libraries, we shall have to set our own internal house in order.” See Eric Moon, “Internal Integration,” Library Journal 86 (June 1961): 2060.


Beatrice Rossell, “Have We Sufficient Vision,” ala Bulletin 55 (June 1961): 477–78.


ala and the Segregation Issue,” ala Bulletin 55 (June 1961): 485–67. See also “ala Adopts Integration Statement,” Wilson Library Bulletin 35 (March 1961): 486–88.


Paul K. Swanson, letter to American Library Association, June 21, 1961, ala Archives, 69/2/6, Box 2.


Eric Moon, “On Editorials,” Library Journal 86 (August 1961): 2618–19.


“Legislation Urged Against Segregated Libraries,” Wilson Library Bulletin 36 (November 1961): 202.


Eli M. Oboler, “Attitudes on Segregation: How ala Compares with Other Professional Associations,” Library Journal 86 (December 15, 1961): 4233–39.


Eric Moon, “Who's Out of Step?” Library Journal 87 (March 1, 1962): 936–37; John Wakeman, “Time to Act,” Wilson Library Bulletin 36 (April 1962): 677. All Council quotes taken from “Integration and Censorship,” Library Journal 87 (March 1, 1962): 904–7. See also “Segregation and ala Membership,” Wilson Library Bulletin 36 (March 1962): 558–61.


“Segregation and ala,” Wilson Library Bulletin 37 (September 1962): 12.


All quotes taken from “Questioning a Question—And Some of the Answers,” Library Journal 88 (July 1963): 2644–47.


“Library Bias Report Draws Angry Denials,” Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1963. See also “The Access to Public Libraries Study,” ala Bulletin 57 (September 1963): 745; “The Access Study: An lj Forum,” Library Journal 88 (December 15, 1963): 4685–4712; and Austin C. Wehrwein, “Integration of South's Libraries Outpaces That of Its Schools,” New York Times, July 16, 1963. For evidence of discrimination in urban housing practices in the North in the 1950s that gave rise to International Research Associates' observations and left urban public library systems vulnerable to these kinds of criticisms, see Stephen G. N. Tuck, We Ain't What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), 247–56; and Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008).


Access to Public Libraries: A Research Project Prepared for the Library Administration Division, American Library Association by International Research Associates, Inc. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1963).


“The Access Study: An lj Forum,” 4685–4712. Quotations on 4690, 4693, 4702–3, 4704–5, 4706, and 4711.


Bernice Lloyd Bell, “Public Library Integration in Thirteen Southern States,” Library Journal 88 (December 15, 1963): 4713–15.


Quotes taken from Karen Joyce Cook, “Freedom Libraries in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project: A History,” PhD diss., University of Alabama, 2008, 189–90. Three years earlier Currier had offered to help African American Frankie Bethea set up a black library in McComb, but only privately as “an individual librarian,” not officially as Mississippi Library Commission director. See Cook's chapter 7. See also Karen Joyce Cook, “Struggles Within: Lura G. Currier, the Mississippi Library Commission and Library Services to African Americans,” Information and Culture 48, no. 1 (2013): 143.


Susan Lee Scott, “Integration of Public Library Facilities in the South: Attitudes and Actions of the Library Profession,” Southeastern Librarian 18 (Fall 1968): 162–69.


Graham, A Right to Read, 99, 120, 130.


Kister, Eric Moon, 175.


John Hope Franklin, “Libraries in a Pluralistic Society,” in Libraries and the Life of the Mind in America: Addresses Delivered at the Centennial Celebration of the American Library Association (Chicago: American Library Association, 1977), 11–14.


Phil Morehart and George M. Eberhart, “Resurrecting the Speaker,” July 1, 2014, American Libraries, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/resurrecting-the-speaker/.


John Eby, “‘Greenville 8’ Together 50 Years After Segregation,” July 12, 2010. http://www.wyff4.com/-Greenville-8-Together-50-Years-After-Segregation/6161420.

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