Auburn Branch Library, Atlanta, Georgia (1921-59)
The Auburn Branch Library was a segregated branch of the Carnegie Library of Atlanta (now the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System). Opened in 1921, it was the first free public library in Atlanta for African Americans and one of twelve segregated public libraries in the south funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Formerly located at 333 Auburn Avenue, the Auburn Branch closed in 1959. Among its notable former users was civic and political leader John Wesley Dobbs (1882-1961).
The Auburn Branch’s story began almost twenty years before the library opened. When the Carnegie Library of Atlanta (CLA) was established in 1902 with a $125,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie, it did not allow black users. Representatives from Atlanta’s African American community, including Atlanta University professor W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), demanded that the CLA provide access to blacks. DuBois questioned the legality of using tax money from blacks (who represented about a third of Atlanta’s population at the time) to support a whites-only public library. The CLA’s trustees not only refused to provide access, they also denied DuBois’s request for black representation on their board. They proposed opening a separate library for blacks instead. But after receiving an offer of $10,000 from Carnegie in 1904 for a “colored” branch, neither the city nor the CLA advanced the project.
Atlanta’s black citizens nevertheless continued lobbying for a black public library. When Tommie Dora Barker (1888-1978) became Librarian of the CLA in 1916, she took up the cause and eventually secured $25,000 from the Carnegie Corporation. Despite further setbacks, Atlanta’s new “colored” library finally opened on July 25, 1921. A one-story, brick structure, the Auburn Branch Library was built on the southwest corner of Auburn and Hilliard streets, in the heart of what was then the largest black district in the south. The Auburn Branch received an annual appropriation from the city and, for its first few years at least, was represented by a “Negro Advisory Committee” that worked directly with the CLA’s trustees.
Under the supervision of its first librarian, Mrs. Alice Dugged Carey (1859-1941), the Branch quickly became one of the Auburn community’s social and intellectual centers. Over its four decades of service, the Auburn Branch offered Atlanta’s black citizens not only thousands of books and magazines to read but also story hours and reading clubs for youth, book discussion groups for adults, and meeting space for countless community organizations. It also formed close partnerships with other black educational institutions and community organizations and established a shut-in borrowing service for hospital patients. When Annie L. McPheeters (1908-94) became the Branch’s librarian in 1934, she established its Negro History Collection, a non-circulating research collection dedicated to African American studies and the history of Atlanta’s black community.
The Auburn Branch’s popularity lasted until the late 1940s, when many of Auburn’s residents began migrating west. When a second segregated library, the West Hunter Branch, opened in the west end of town in 1949, use of the Auburn Branch steadily declined. It finally closed in 1959 and the building was razed in 1960. Today, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, located just blocks from where the Auburn Branch once stood, houses the former branch’s Negro History Collection, now called the Samuel W. Williams Collection on Black America.
Sources: Barbara Mamie Adkins, A History of Public Library Service to Negroes in Atlanta, Georgia (Atlanta University: Master’s Thesis, 1951); Cheryl Knott, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015); Annie L. McPheeters, Library Service in Black and White: Some Personal Recollections, 1921-1980 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988).
Western Colored Branch Library, Louisville, Kentucky (1905- )
The Western Colored Branch Library was a segregated public library in Louisville, Kentucky, first opened in 1905. It was the first free public library for African Americans in the United States and its building of 1908 was one of twelve segregated public library buildings funded by Andrew Carnegie’s library development program of the early century. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1975 and operates today as the Western Library, an integrated branch of the Louisville Free Public Library system.
The force behind the Western Colored Branch’s foundation was Albert E. Meyzeek (1862-1963), an African American educator who, in 1902, protested the Louisville Free Public Library’s exclusion of African Americans from its libraries. The library board, which had obtained $450,000 from Andrew Carnegie for a new main library building and eight neighborhood branches, agreed in 1905 to open a “colored branch” at 1125 West Chestnut Street in west Louisville’s predominantly black Russell neighborhood. The library occupied rented rooms until October 28, 1908, when it reopened in a handsome, $35,000 building located at 604 South 10th Street. Unlike some later segregated public libraries in the south, however, the Western Colored Branch was not governed by a separate board of black civic leaders. It operated under the white board of the Louisville Free Public Library. The branch was nevertheless well received by its users. It offered collections for adults and children as well as books by both white and black writers. It also hosted many clubs, held popular story-telling contests for children and teens, and provided public meeting space in its basement. The Western Colored Branch was so well received that in 1914 the Louisville Free Public Library opened a second segregated library, the Eastern Colored Branch, in east Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood.
Over their decades of service, both “colored” branches became important educational support and community social centers for the city’s African Americans. They also served as models for other segregated libraries in the south. Behind much of the Western Branch’s early success was its inaugural head librarian, the Reverend Thomas Fountain Blue (1866-1935), and its original children’s librarian, Rachel D. Harris (1869-1969), now both considered African American pioneers of librarianship. From 1912 to 1931, Blue (and later, with Harris) operated a librarian training program at the Western Branch which until 1925 remained the only librarian training program in the country open to African Americans. Blue and Harris also helped improve library collections in Louisville’s segregated public schools.
The Western Colored Branch operates today as the Western Library, an integrated branch of the Louisville Free Public Library system. Though no longer segregated, it remains in its Carnegie building of 1908 and serves a predominantly African American neighborhood. The library also maintains extensive special collections dedicated to African American studies and the history of Louisville’s black community. Among the Western Colored Branch’s former users is Houston A. Baker, the distinguished scholar of African American studies.
Sources: Cheryl Knott Malone, “Louisville Free Public Library’s Racially Segregated Branches, 1905-35,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 93:2 (Spring 1995); Cheryl Knott, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015); Joshua D. Farrington, “Western Colored Branch Library (Louisville),” The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
Eastern Colored Branch Library, Louisville, Kentucky (1914-75)
The Eastern Colored Branch was a segregated public library located at 600 Lampton Street in Louisville, Kentucky. Opened in 1914, it was the second of the city’s “colored” libraries and served Louisville’s east end. The Western Colored Branch, which opened in 1905, was the first free public library in the United States for African Americans. Both branches were among the twelve segregated public libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie’s library program of the early century. The Eastern Branch closed in 1975.
The force behind the Western and Eastern Colored Branches was Albert E. Meyzeek (1862-1963), an African American educator who in 1902 protested the Louisville Free Public Library’s exclusion of African Americans from its libraries. The library board, which had obtained $450,000 from Andrew Carnegie for a main library and eight branches, agreed in 1905 to open the Western Colored Branch in Louisville’s predominantly middle-class Russell neighborhood. Reopened in 1908 in a Carnegie building on South 10th Street, the Western Colored Branch offered collections for adults and children as well as books by white and black writers. It also hosted many clubs, held popular story-telling contests for youth, and provided public meeting space in its basement. Impressed with the Western Colored Branch’s success, Meyzeek and Reverend C.C. Bates began lobbying for a branch in the east end. The Eastern Colored Branch opened on January 28, 1914, making Louisville the only city in the United States at the time with two segregated libraries. The Eastern Colored Branch was also the eighth and last library Louisville built with its Carnegie funds.
Like its west end counterpart, the Eastern Colored Branch operated under the Louisville Free Public Library’s board and was supervised by Thomas Fountain Blue (1866-1935). However, the Eastern Colored Branch served a considerably poorer neighborhood. It also housed considerably fewer books, at least in its early years. And despite its nearly identical size, the $19,000 Eastern Colored Branch building had cost substantially less than the $35,000 Western Branch. Still, the Eastern Branch was an instant success, serving over 14,000 of Louisville’s east end residents in its first seven months of service.
Over their decades of service, both “colored” branches became important educational support and community social centers for Louisville’s African Americans. They also served as models for other segregated libraries in the south. Behind much of their success was their head librarian, Thomas Fountain Blue, and the Western Colored Branch’s original children’s librarian, Rachel D. Harris (1869-1969), now both considered African American pioneers of librarianship. When Blue became head of the Louisville Free Public Library’s Colored Department in 1920, Harris relocated to the Eastern Colored Branch to serve as its Senior Assistant.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Western Colored Branch operates today as the Western Library, an integrated branch of the Louisville Free Public Library system. The Eastern Branch, however, closed on December 31, 1975. Its former building remains on the corner of Hancock and Lampton streets.
Sources: Beatrice S. Brown, Louisville’s Historic Black Neighborhoods (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia, 2012); Joshua D. Farrington, “Eastern Colored Branch Library (Louisville)”, The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015); Cheryl Knott Malone, “Louisville Free Public Library’s Racially Segregated Branches, 1905-35,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 93:2 (Spring 1995).
The 13th Street Colored Branch Library, Meridian, Mississippi (1913-1974)
The 13th Street Colored Branch was a segregated public library established by the city of Meridian, Mississippi in 1912 and opened in March 1913. It was one of the first free public libraries for African Americans in the state of Mississippi and one of twelve segregated libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie during his library philanthropy program of the early twentieth century.
Although Meridian asked Carnegie for library funds as early as 1904, it was not until 1911 that the library program’s manager, James Bertram, offered the city $30,000 for a main, whites-only library and $8,000 for a “colored” branch. At the time, African Americans accounted for almost one full third of the city’s population. The two-story, main library was built on the corner of 7th Street and 25th Avenue in the city’s downtown, while the segregated library was built on the corner of 13th Street and 28th Avenue in Meridian’s northwest, then known as the “colored” part of town. The Haven Institute, a small black college located on 13th Street, was instrumental in establishing the library; the African Methodist Episcopal Churches, which operated both the Haven Institute as well as one of Meridian’s oldest black churches, St. Paul’s Methodist, donated a site for the library.
Although the “Colored Library” received an annual tax appropriation from the city, it was governed by the Colored Library Advisory Board, a separate board whose inaugural chairman was Dr. J. Beverly Shaw of the Haven Institute. The institution’s first librarian was Mary Rayford Collins; later librarians included Helen Strayhorn, Katherine Mathis and Gradie Clayton, among others.
For over sixty years the 13th Street library served Meridian’s African Americans as both an educational support center and a community meeting space. When Meridian desegregated its public libraries in 1964, the separate advisory board dissolved and the 13th Street library became a branch of the Meridian-Lauderdale Public Library. It nevertheless continued to serve the predominantly African American northwest part of town.
The city closed the 13th Street Library in September 1974, claiming that it was no longer usable as a public building. The former library was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and, in 2006, the Lauderdale County Human Relations Commission announced plans to convert it into a center for arts education. It was demolished in 2008, however, after it was deemed unsuitable for preservation. Only a piece of its front walkway remains.
p>Sources: Jeanne Broach, The Meridian Public Libraries: An Informal History, 1913-74 (Meridian, MS: Meridian Public Library, 1974); Matthew Griffis, “A Separate Space: Remembering Meridian’s Segregated Carnegie Library, 1913-74,” Mississippi Libraries 80:3 (Fall 2017); Cheryl Owens, “Study Stirs Memories of Segregated Library in Meridian,” The Meridian Star, March 4, 2017.
Carnegie Library, Mound Bayou, Mississippi (1910-35)
Constructed in 1910 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie’s library development program, the Carnegie Library of Mound Bayou, Mississippi was the first free public library intended for African Americans in the state of Mississippi and one of the first African American public libraries in the country. It served as both a reading room and a community assembly hall until fire destroyed it in the 1930s. Its architect, William Sidney Pittman, who would later design the segregated Carnegie branch library in Houston, Texas, is the only African American known to have designed a Carnegie library.
The library was one of Mound Bayou’s key civic developments between 1905 and 1915, a period of substantial growth that began with the opening of the Bank of Mound Bayou in 1904 and peaked with the completion of the town’s ill-fated Oil Mill and Manufacturing Company in 1912. Charles Banks, a local businessman, had helped establish both institutions. A protégé of Booker T. Washington’s, Banks was also founder of the Mississippi Negro Business League and one of Mound Bayou’s most influential citizens. He agreed with mayor B. Howard Creswell that a free public library would improve the region’s educational infrastructure. When Banks wrote his first letter to Andrew Carnegie in January 1909, the philanthropist responded just three weeks later, offering Mound Bayou $4,000 for a library. It remained the only public library grant Carnegie offered to a black town in the United States.
Mound Bayou built its one-story, red-brick library on the southwest corner of Green and Fisher streets, diagonal from the Normal and Industrial Institute. Its builder was Thomas W. Cook and its architect was William Sidney Pittman, a Tuskegee graduate and son-in-law of Booker T. Washington. However, soon after opening the library in December 1910, Mound Bayou struggled to maintain it as a public library. Though its payroll included a custodian, the library contained few furnishings and no books, only newspapers and magazines. Within a year, town council had already neglected its financial obligation to the library. Tensions increased when Carnegie learned that the local Masonic Benefits Association was renting part of the building for its offices. The situation did not improve when a crash in cotton prices crippled the town’s industrial anchor, the Oil Mill and Manufacturing Company. State regulators closed the Bank of Mound Bayou in 1914, sending the town into further decline.
Mound Bayou’s citizens nevertheless used their Carnegie Library for a variety of community purposes, including public meetings, business league meetings, farmer’s conferences, and fundraising events. The nearby Normal and Industrial Institute and Bolivar County Training School also used the library for classes. Though a donation of 200 books boosted the library’s collections in 1912, it is unclear whether the library ever contained enough books to support the town of 1,500. In 1925, the City Federation of Women’s Clubs offered to reopen and maintain the building as a fully operational public library. But whether the town accepted their proposal is unknown. The library was lost in 1935 when a fire destroyed much of Mound Bayou’s business district. It was not rebuilt.
Sources: Aurelius P. Hood and Marshall Frady, The Negro at Mound Bayou: Being an Authentic Story of the Founding, Growth and Development of the “Most Celebrated Town in the South,” Covering a Period of Twenty-Two Years (Nashville: A.M.E. Sunday School Union, 1910); Jackson Jr., David H., A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002); Rosen, Joel Nathan, “Mound Bayou,” The Mississippi Encyclopedia (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017).
East Henry Street Carnegie Library, Savannah, Georgia (1914- )
The East Henry Street Carnegie Library is a branch of the Live Oak Public Libraries in Savannah, Georgia. It originally opened in 1914 as the Colored Carnegie Library, one of twelve segregated public libraries in the south funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and one of the earliest African American public libraries in Georgia. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Though temporarily closed in the late 1990s, it reopened in 2006 after a major restoration and expansion project.
The opening of Savannah’s Colored Carnegie Library in 1914 was a major step for the city’s African Americans in their progress toward free library services. Their quest had begun ten years before, when the city established its first public library but prevented blacks from using it. As a result, the Colored Library Association of Savannah formed in 1906 and operated the Savannah Colored Public Library out of a doctor’s office on Hartridge Street. The Association’s twelve founding members included many of black Savannah’s professional, business, and cultural leaders. Although the library received an annual appropriation from the city, most of its collections were donations. But in 1909, after Andrew Carnegie offered the city $60,000 (later raised to $75,000) for a new main library on Bull Street, the Colored Library Association was encouraged to approach the philanthropist themselves. In August 1910, Carnegie offered them $12,000 for a small library. Savannah’s population at the time was 65,064, just under half of which were black. The Association used community donations to purchase a library site on East Henry Street, across from Dixon Park. Architect Julian de Bruyn Kops designed the building and local contractor D.P. Phillips built it.
The Colored Carnegie Library opened on August 14, 1914. Its inaugural librarian was Charles A.R. McDowell. Though its opening day collections consisted of only 3,000 volumes, the library immediately became an indispensable community institution among Savannah’s African Americans. It provided them with reading materials by black and white authors, programs to attend, clubs to join, and space for public meetings. While the library received support from the city, it remained supervised by a separate board until 1963, when Savannah desegregated its libraries. The Carnegie Library reopened as an integrated branch of the Savannah Public Library but continued to serve a predominantly African American clientele.
Over the following decades, the Carnegie library on East Henry Street fell into disrepair. Changes to building codes, including new ADA compliance standards, outmoded the building. By 2000, it was temporarily closed. In 2001, the Live Oak Public Libraries began raising funds to restore and reopen the library. It officially reopened in 2006. The restoration project won numerous architectural and historic preservation awards, including the Marguerite Williams Award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation as well as the National Preservation Award. An important part of Savannah’s African American history, the library’s former users include Savannah mayors Floyd Adams and Otis Johnson, former public school superintendent Virginia Edwards, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Pulitzer Prize winning author James Alan McPherson.
Sources: Margaret Walton Godley, Savannah Public Library History (Savannah, GA: Savannah Public Library, 1950); Cheryl Knott, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015); Robert Burke Walker Jr., Georgia’s Carnegie Libraries: A Study of Their History, Their Existing Conditions and Conservation (University of Georgia: Master’s Thesis, 1994).