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Segregated Libraries

Page history last edited by shocklc@... 13 years, 7 months ago

 Arrested for trying to read a book in a segregated library.  Albany, GA. 1962.


Separate and unequal access to knowledge is the antithesis of library ideals.  During the civil rights movement libraries were a popular target for protests because libraries were symbols of democracy and opportunity for all.  Study-Ins and other protests were often held at public libraries in the South.   As reported in the June 1961 ALA Bulletin article, The "Study-In" at Jackson, Mississippi, "Nine Negro students of Tougaloo Christian College, near Jackson, Mississippi were fined $100 each and given 30-day suspended sentences on March 29 for participating in Mississippi's first 'study-in' at the city's main public library which is for whites only...At the city jail the students said they had been unable to obtain materials they needed in libraries open to Negroes and had therefore gone to the main library"(Moore 75).  Libraries were included in Albany, Georgia's fight for equal access to public places that was lead by Martin Luther King Jr.   A February 1963 ALA Bulletin article, No Decision in Albany, states, "On July 17 several small groups of Negroes were reported to have attempted to enter the Carnegie Free Library, on Jackson Street (the main city library), but were refused entrance and left without incident.  Witnesses said they were turned away by library employees.  The Albany Herald said that the city remained right side up today and it was reported that Martin Luther King had left town"(Moore 77). That was not the end of the story as the struggle in Albany continued.  The above picture shows a woman being arrested at the Albany library.  "Both the main library and Lee Street branch, which serves the Negro population of the city, were ordered closed on August 11 by the chief of police, and they were to remain closed indefinitely"(Moore 78).  Because public libraries are the ark of the American creed they were the consummate destination in the struggle for all individuals to pursue their fullest potential.                    

                Despite the fact that American public libraries often failed to live up to their ideals, libraries were integrated at a faster rate than other public institutions such as schools, "indicating a unique place for libraries within the southern social imagination"(Fultz 11).  Attitudes toward racial integration in public libraries were "somewhat less strident" (Fultz  13).  Economic class was a factor in libraries' progress toward integration.   Because libraries were considered storehouses of high culture they were associated with a higher economic class.  It was easier for Whites to accept the presence of Black patrons in libraries.  Michael Fultz quoted a respondent to the 1963 Access survey, "The rough class of either race doesn't go to the library" (14).  According to "the ALA's 1963 Access to Libraries,... data indicated at least 271 instances of integrated service, representing approximately 24-26 percent of the main city and town libraries in the 11 states of the Civil War confederacy...By way of contrast, during the 1963-64 school year these same eleven states averaged a mere 1.12 percent of their African American student populations attending schools with whites" (Fultz 12).   Even when libraries acted as progressive leaders in the fight for equality, they still broadly missed the mark on occasion.   "In some cases limitations were placed on borrowing books and reference materials, on the use of periodical collections, and on where African Americans might sit; some libraries maintained separate restrooms, separate checkout desks, and/or separate entrances" (Fultz 12).  Some segregated libraries forced to integrate during the civil rights movement responded in childish and petty ways.  One such response was vertical integration.  A library would allow African Americans to use the library, but all the tables and chairs were removed, ensuring that Blacks and Whites would not be seated together.  Some felt the ALA was too complicit in library segregation.  The ALA bulletin published a portion of a letter from Ruth W. Brown, former librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma to the editor of the the Library Journal.  "Public libraries must be integrated ... and the ALA and all librarians must take a stand....Public libraries must not compel the Supreme Court to hand down another decision, but must make freedom to read an actual fact in the United States"(Moore 73).  Brown noted that at the Bartlesville Library "Negroes sat where they pleased, browsed where they pleased (no vertical readers), and books and magazines of a special Negro interest were provided"(Moore 73).   According to an April 1961 ALA Bulletin article, The Freedom to Use Libraries, the ALA clarified "their official position on freedom of access to libraries"(Moore 73).  At the ALA midwinter meeting of 1961 an amendment was made to the library bill of rights.  "The right 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" (Moore 73)  Though public libraries often responded heroically to threats to equal access, they cannot escape the fact that their image as agents of democracy was spoiled by America's history of racial subjugation. 


John Hope Franklin


Some fifteen years after the American Library Association amended the library bill of rights to prohibit racially discriminated access, Professor John Hope Franklin essentially held a mirror in front of the ALA. 1976 was the year of the ALA's centennial and America's bicentennial.  In honor of both occasions,  ALA member, Kathleen Molz imagined a series of lectures that would focus on the impact of libraries on the American mind.  She named the program, "Libraries and the Life of the Mind in America."  Her title choice was taken directly from the book, The Life of the Mind in America, written in 1965 by American Studies scholar, Perry Miller.  The program was a two year series of six lectures that was developed under the direction of then-ALA president and former Tulsa City County Library director, Allie Beth Martin.   The first of these lectures was given in 1975 by the renowned scholar, John Hope Franklin.   His address was titled Libraries in a Pluralistic Society.  He traced the history of American libraries in context with the history of the United States.  He praised the work of American librarians, saying they "have many reasons to be pleased with their contributions to the life of the mind in the United States"( J. Franklin 14).  He also reminded his audience that the history of American libraries bore the same marks of inequality as did the history of the United States itself.  The speech is well titled because it discusses both America's cultural diversity and America's duality: the ideal of equal opportunity and the practice of separatist oppression.  He said at the founding of the ALA,  the profession had to confront certain issues; "One of these was the need to recognize the all important principle that the true diffusion of knowledge rejects discriminatory practices or practices of exclusion against certain groups and individuals because of race, religion, political, or social views or national origin" (J. Franklin 11-12).  Franklin criticized Carnegie's compliance with southern library segregation by permitting local whites control.  "This meant that some communities allocated all of the Carnegie money to the library for whites without any provision at all for a library for Negroes.  Meanwhile some other communities allocated most of the Carnegie money for the library for whites, assigning the remainder to a hopelessly inferior library for blacks" (J. Franklin 12-3) .  Franklin noted libraries' apathetic progress toward equal access.  "Until the recent cases involving public education and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, public libraries for blacks 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" (J. Franklin 13).   Franklin went on to remind librarians of the high standards of their calling.  "Librarians and, indeed, all others who presume to guard and promote the nation's culture and education betray their trust when they countenance the exclusion of any group from the enjoyment of the opportunity to utilize community's cultural and educational facilities" (J. Franklin 12).  He warns librarians to continue to be diligent in their goal of equal access to opportunity. "One cannot ever rest on one's laurels however great they may be and however tempting that posture of repose may be"(J. Franklin 14).  John Hope Franklin's speech celebrates the work of libraries and calls on the library profession to acknowledge their flawed history in order to safeguard their high purpose against future threats. 



Louisville Free Public Library Western Branch, reference desk, 1927.  Caulfield & Shook (photographer)


Louisville Free Public Library Western Branch, children's room, 1936.  Caulfield & Shook (photographer)





American Library History 

Stereotypes of the Library Profession

The Future of Libraries

Libraries Works Cited

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