Users at a “colored library,” 1928. Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs, University of Virginia Special Collections, MSS-3072.


The Roots of Community project examines the history of the twelve segregated Carnegie libraries (or “Carnegie Negro libraries”, as they were called then), a group of public libraries that opened between 1900 and 1925 and were an official extension of Andrew Carnegie’s (and later the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s) well-known library building program. These libraries opened in Atlanta, GA; Greensboro, NC; Houston, TX; Knoxville, TN; Louisville, KY (2 libraries); Meridian, MS; Mound Bayou, MS; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; and Savannah, GA. Only one segregated Carnegie library opened in a northern community: Evansville, IN.

For as many as six decades these libraries served as learning spaces for African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights American South. By the 1970s, most had closed or were integrated into the formerly white-only public library systems of their larger communities.

Little published research exists about them, however. And while public historians, researchers, and students of various academic and professional fields will likely benefit from knowing more about them—where they existed, how they were governed and managed, what guidelines or expectations they had to follow as a result of accepting Carnegie’s funding—these twelve libraries’ stories also have great potential to help today’s library professionals better understand how library users, especially those from marginalized groups, create and sustain a sense of community among members as well as within the larger community outside of the library space.

The Roots of Community project’s objectives are twofold: First, to complete the first comprehensive study of all eleven segregated Carnegie libraries, a project that will consider each library’s civic and economic origins, governance, spatial design, collections, use, and place in the larger community. Drawing on documentary, archival, and other historical materials as evidence, the project aims to determine the extent to which African Americans used these libraries as spaces for participatory learning and community-making in the pre-Civil Rights south. Its second objective enhances the first: to seek surviving users of these libraries and record their recollections and experiences as oral histories.

Project deliverables include a full-length book (in progress), an educational toolkit for libraries and librarians, materials for the BlackPast.org web resource, and completed oral history interviews to be made available on this project website and later through the University of Southern Mississippi’s online special collections.

Andrew Carnegie, Library Philanthropy and “Carnegie Negro Libraries”

Carnegie libraries have been a popular topic of historical research for the past forty years. They were, put simply, public libraries that were funded by the Scottish-born American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who, from 1898 to 1917, funded the construction of 1,689 public and academic libraries across the United States. General historical perspectives about Carnegie libraries are common, and provide a rich and detailed basis for understanding the social contexts and economic origins of the Carnegie library grant program in the United States, the program’s overall contributions to the development and spread of the modern free public library as a means for self-education and the spread of literacy, and, most especially, how Carnegie library buildings contributed in the early century to the standardization of power relations between people in public space.

Andrew Carnegie (center, with beard) at the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its foundation in 1906. To his right is Booker T. Washington, with whom Carnegie enjoyed a long-term correspondence. National Portrait Gallery NPG.2009.8, via Wikimedia Commons.


However, while Carnegie’s library grant program flourished, free library services to African-Americans in the United States were still limited, especially in the pre-Civil Rights South where segregation laws (also known as Jim Crow laws, a term used to describe the US state laws passed in the 1890s onward that legislated the separation of blacks from whites in the South in housing, public education, public facilities, and other areas) prevailed. In most southern communities, white attitudes summarily dismissed the need for library service of any kind for blacks. Although segregated libraries were not uncommon then, there were not many and only eleven communities in the United States opened libraries for African Americans through Carnegie’s program. The segregated Carnegie libraries were not just some of the few such libraries to occupy full, freestanding buildings in their communities (i.e., were not simply “Negro reading rooms” hidden away in the damp basements of the public libraries for whites), they were among some of the first free public libraries accessible to African Americans at a time when such resources were relatively unavailable. And, as extensions of the broader Carnegie library grant program, these twelve libraries would have been subject to many of the same conditions of governance, taxation, and maintenance that Carnegie’s program typically imposed upon communities accepting his gifts. This alone makes these libraries landmarks of civic history and creates, for the interested researcher, a basis for endless (and interesting) comparisons between the white-only Carnegie libraries and their segregated counterparts the same city or community.

Project Partners

BlackPast.org is a free, open access scholarly reference resource maintained by professional historians of African American history and culture. As its mission statement outlines, the resource “is dedicated to providing the inquisitive public with comprehensive, reliable, and accurate information concerning the history of African Americans in the United States and people of African ancestry in other regions of the world. It is the aim of the founders and sponsors to foster understanding through knowledge in order to generate constructive change in our society.” All materials published on BlackPast.org are peer-reviewed.

The Aquila Digital Community, an open access digital repository created and maintained by The University of Southern Mississippi. Aquila contains all the scholarly works created by the university’s faculty, staff, and students and hosts digital journals and newsletters published by the University. It also designs and publishes websites that support various research projects by the university’s faculty.

Two other researchers, Dr. Julie Hersberger of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Dr. Eric Platt of the University of Memphis, will serve as editorial consultants on the book. Hersberger is a former professional librarian and now a professor of libraries and information. She studies, among other things, social networks and relationship building and the information behavior of marginalized and oppressed groups. Her historical work published in 2007 about the segregated Carnegie library in Greensboro, NC serves as a basis of sorts for the proposed project. Platt is an historian of education in the American South. His specializations include three areas relevant for this project: the role of institutions in educational infrastructure; the history of education for specific groups and minorities (religious communities); and the place of informal learning in the daily lives of adults.

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant # RE-31-16-0044-16). Note, however, that the views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed on this website (or in any other project-related materials) do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is celebrating its 20th Anniversary in 2016. IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. Its mission has been to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. For the past 20 years, its grant making, policy development, and research has helped libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov and follow the IMLS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About the Project Director

Dr. Matthew Griffis is an Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at The University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg.

Dr. Griffis has spoken about the history of modern libraries and public libraries as social spaces at local, state, national, and international conferences (including four research papers presented at the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2016 annual conferences of the American Library Association). He has also helped organize conferences and institutes devoted to educating library professionals on the design of effective and responsive library space.

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