Black History for Libraries

Black history is American history, and American libraries are no different. W.E.B. DuBois started Negro History Week in 1925. He hoped to “raise awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization”. There was an overwhelming support and celebration of this week; and in 1976 it was expanded to an entire month. Despite some of the racist history of libraries in America, there have been many African Americans who have created, shaped, and otherwise positively influenced American libraries. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of some of the African Americans and organizations who have made library history. So, if there are any people or organizations I may have missed, feel free to share them in the comment section.

Carla Hayden

Appointed the Librarian of Congress in February 2016 by Barack Obama and sworn in September 14, 2016, Carla Hayden is the first woman and the first African American to be the Librarian of Congress. She worked for the Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library after Freddie Grey was murdered and made the decision to keep the libraries open in the aftermath of the shooting, as libraries “should be open especially when times are tough“. When asked about being the first woman and African-American Librarian of Congress in an interview with PBS, she replied, “I am really smiling because of Mr. Melville Dewey…about 1876 he decided it might be good to have women join the profession because as he said, I love this quote “they can endure pain with fortitude and they can perform monotonous tasks with patience”… To get more serious, being the first African American really resonates because for so many years during slavery slaves were forbidden to learn how to read, and some of the the laws back then, amputating fingers, forty lashes, and more, just to learn to read. So to have an African American head up the largest institution that signifies knowledge and information resonates with me quite a bit.”

Regina Anderson Andrews

Regina Anderson Andrews was the first African American to head a New York Public Library branch at 115th Street. This was after working for the NYPL for some years at the 135th street branch where she was essentially the “Harlem Renaissance Librarian”. Andrews, “was there the whole time: lending out books, throwing parties, fighting for opportunities of her own, and enabling the spread of ideas that made the era what it was.” She came to know many of the Harlem Renaissance who’s who from her work at the library. Andrews’ professional and private lives became further enmeshed as her and her roommates’ apartment, the Dream Haven, became a frequented site by other Harlem Renaissance stars. Even after leaving the 135th Street Branch for other branches, Andrews continued to encourage community use of the library, whether that be by inviting speakers or hosting theater groups.

Dorothy Porther

Born in 1904 in Virginia, Dorothy Porter was the first black women to earn a Master’s of Library Science degree from Columbia University. This by itself is impressive, but Parker goes on to do more and make a lasting impact for African history and library science. In 1930, she was appointed Chief Librarian at Howard University, where she would work for 43 years. Porter worked to establish a modern research library, which she did through expanding the scope of holdings and partnerships, implementing a more functional classification system, creating a series of bibliographies. Her work at Howard University was at the forefront of developing special collections and research centered on black lives.

Louisville Western Branch Library

Despite being “public” libraries, the public libraries that began to pop up all over the country at the turn of the century were for whites only, thanks to the Plessy vs. Ferguson case making segregation legal. The first free public library run by and for African Americans was opened in Louisville, Kentucky. Activist and educator Albert E. Meyzeek garnered community support and the city’s library committee agreed to allow African American community members to access the library system. The library opened in 1905, funded by Andrew Carnegie. In 2001, the library was at risk of closing, but was saved by a $12,000 donation from the musician Prince.

Phoenix Society

Social libraries were a precursor to public libraries, beginning in New England during the 1740s. These libraries were created by and for whites, but by the mid 1800s social libraires and literary societies were formed by African-Americans. One of the earliest of these libraries was the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons. The library members were free men*, and they aimed to “build up a collection of useful books on every subject for the benefit of its members and to educate the group by means of weekly lectures on literary and scientific subjects.”

*All but one of the literary societies and libraries were segregated by gender; the Gilbert Lyceum was the first and likely only co-ed society.

This is only a short list of some of the ways African Americans have and continue to make library history. What other people, organizations, or events could be added to this list? Despite African Americans having such a rich library history, this field is incredibly white, something libraries and library schools must continue to address. White people in the profession can begin by acknowledging their privilege and dismantling their bias. What are some more ways we can make libraries more inclusive to African Americans?


Hanna Roseen is in her second and final year as a residential MLIS student at the University of Washington with an interest in public, academic, and school librarianship, and archives. You can check out her latest project, a sexuality education bookstagram, here.


Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

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