“Hidden Figures” of Civil Rights History: The Desegregation of Public Libraries

Although historians of the Civil Rights Era (1954–1968) have crafted an impressive and increasingly complex body of literature, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism adds a new dimension to this literature by focusing on the resolve of young black community activists who bravely resisted racial discrimination in public libraries throughout the American South. To this day they largely remain “hidden figures” in Civil Rights history.

We trace the struggle for equal access to public library services to the years before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when black activists in the South focused their efforts on equalizing accommodations, rather than on the more daunting—and dangerous—task of undoing segregation. After the ruling, momentum for vigorously pursuing equality grew, and black organizations shifted to more direct challenges to the system, including public library sit-ins, “read-ins,” and lawsuits against library systems. Although local groups often took direction from larger Civil Rights organizations, the energy, courage, and determination of younger black community members ensured the eventual desegregation of Jim Crow public libraries.

In our narrative we concentrate on local stories to identify broader patterns of struggle. We admit to being drawn to those stories, supported by primary sources. They also generated national, state, and local headlines and contained colorful, and some now famous, personalities. We follow the primary sources, including records for lawsuits filed in federal courts; local white newspapers, many on microfilm at state libraries; as well as regional and local black newspapers, many of which are now digitized and easily searchable.

By focusing on the desegregation of public libraries in specific locations like Memphis, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina; Petersburg and Danville, Virginia; and the states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, we recognize that we are telling only part of a much larger story. We hope our book will not only encourage others to undertake the histories of the desegregation of southern public libraries on a state-by-state basis, but also to initiate a conversation about what impacts racially segregated neighborhoods in the rest of the country have meant for public library services across the nation. We are convinced there are more “hidden figures” to be discovered and more stories to be told.

While our research has been enriched by a massive body of literature addressing the Civil Rights Era, most of that literature has largely overlooked events surrounding the desegregation of public libraries. A few notable exceptions stand out.

Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965 (University of Alabama Press, 2002): Patterson Toby Graham provides a model for other historians of library segregation in individual states. For Alabama, he demonstrates how Jim Crow affected library services from the late 19th century to the end of the Civil Rights Era. Before Brown, Alabama’s African Americans denied access to white libraries worked to establish and maintain their own “Negro branches.” Where they succeeded they may have been separate, but they were never equal because they were always underfunded and ill-prepared to meet the needs of their users. By 1960, however, a new generation of Alabama’s African American citizens challenged the segregated public library systems their taxes supported. Rarely did Alabama librarians openly oppose segregation; Graham discusses the few who did and the consequences they suffered. Sometimes violence erupted in the wake of public library protests, as in Anniston in 1963. More often, however, non-violent sit-ins and “read-ins” forced local officials to desegregate library services, or led to lawsuits that eventually brought the same results.

Not Free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015): Cheryl Knott builds on a lifetime of historical research to provide the definitive history of segregated public libraries across the South before Brown. She shows that racially segregated public libraries were the norm rather than the exception, which belied the “free for all” rhetoric the nation’s library community trumpeted to justify the existence of these civil institutions.  She shows how the evolution toward integrated services experienced fits and starts in the first half of the 20th century, when white middle-class women were in the forefront of establishing and maintaining segregated libraries. Finally, she clearly shows that African Americans then established their own separate library spaces.

Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Duke University Press, 2002): Elizabeth McHenry documents the troubled journey African Americans were forced to take in the 19th century to expand their access to print in an ever-resistant white world. She carefully documents how free upper and middle class blacks north of the Mason-Dixon line used their reading practices and literary conversation to craft their civic identities and challenge white political and literary cultures. By reading her book, one better understands the motivations of those who protested Jim Crow libraries generations later.

Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015): Wayne A. Wiegand delves into the heart of why Americans have loved their public libraries for the past 160 years by listening to the voices of everyday patrons who used them. His research unearths three major reasons for these affections. Americans love their public libraries because they make practical information accessible, supply stories that help readers understand the world, and provide a place for communities to gather. Community gathering was especially important for African Americans in the Jim Crow South where access to public places where they could gather freely and safely was so restricted.  It was this discovery that motivated the research we undertook for The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South.

For context, we relied heavily on two books: Leon F. Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (Vintage Books, 1999) and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010). Both clearly show the institutional and personal injustices and humiliations the larger, southern white society inflicted on African Americans; both helped us ground our understanding of what motivated those young black 1960s protesters to risk their lives to desegregate their local public libraries.

Wayne A. Wiegand is F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies Emeritus and professor of American Studies at Florida State University.

Shirley A. Wiegand is professor emerita of law at Marquette University. The Wiegands are the authors or coauthors of numerous books, including Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland.

Buy The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism today and don’t forget to follow LSU Press on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook!