A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama's Public Libraries, 1900 - 1965

A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama's Public Libraries, 1900 - 1965

by Patterson Toby Graham


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817353711
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 08/20/2006
Edition description: 1
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Patterson Toby Graham is Head of Special Collections at the University of Southern Mississippi. His research on library segregation has won four awards, including the ALISE-Eugene Garfield Dissertation Award.

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A Right to Read

Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama's Public Libraries, 1900â"1965

By Patterson Toby Graham

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5371-1


Black Libraries and White Attitudes, The Early Years

Birmingham and Mobile, 1918–1931

Public libraries developed later in the South than in other regions. Unlike that of the Northeast, whose tax-supported free library service came into its own during the second half of the nineteenth century, the South's public library movement was for the most part a twentieth-century phenomenon. Examining New England between 1629 and 1855, Jesse H. Shera identified the causal factors he believed led to the growth of Northern libraries. These were economic ability, a demand for scholarship, awareness of a need for publicly supported educational services, a faith in self-education, a demand for vocational education, and "other causal factors," including a belief that reading was a "good" thing in itself. As a region, the South exhibited none of these characteristics until the last years of the nineteenth century.

In her 1958 book on the development of southern public libraries, Mary Edna Anders contends that its defeat in the Civil War left the South without the financial wherewithal to match the North in library development. The war left the South impoverished and largely subject to economic interests outside the region. In the immediate postwar years, the South lacked a well-heeled indigenous class of men and women with the leisure time, finances, and inclination to work toward the establishment of institutions of culture. It should also be noted, however, that even before the war, the South had an individualistic, provincial, and sometimes anti-intellectual nature that did not lend itself to public library development. In the antebellum South, a widespread conviction that governments should provide agencies of education for the masses had yet to emerge.

By the 1890s, however, the South had changed. It was in the midst of an economic transition that made the region more industrial and more urban. Modernization brought the rise of a new middle class of professionals and businessmen in southern cities. Anders asserts that the improved southern economy provided a "more favorable climate" for the establishment of public libraries than had previously existed. Out of the new professional and business class came a demand for educational facilities and services, including libraries. By 1900, the southern public library movement was underway.

The public library movement in the South was distinguished from its northern counterpart in several respects, including its ties to southern progressive reform and the presence of racial segregation of library facilities. With the transition of the old agrarian South into the "New South" that was trying to be both industrial and urban came an awareness within the new bourgeoisie of a need for social improvement. In Alabama this progressive impulse translated into tax reform, a workman's compensation law, a child welfare department, and governmental support for public health, roads, and education. In a state that had traditionally lagged in literacy and general education, the progressives recognized that the need for agencies for learning was particularly acute. The public library movement in Alabama and in the urban South came out of this spirit of reform.

Anders points out that clubwomen were the first to adopt libraries as a cause, but businessmen, educators, clergy, and librarians followed. These individuals worked to found libraries in the interest of education for children, self-help for adults, local culture, and civic pride. Municipal leaders believed that presence of a public library provided evidence that a community was progressive in its thinking. According to Marilyn J. Martin, library development was also a beginning point for other social improvements, "a first step toward activist reforms typical of the Progressive Era."

With the arrival of new libraries in Alabama, librarianship emerged as a profession at the turn of the twentieth century, during the region's period of modernization. Partly as a result of the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, the state had nine public libraries for whites by 1904. Representatives of these institutions, along with others from college, religious, and women's club libraries gathered in Montgomery that year for the first meeting of the Alabama Library Association. The organization's goal was to promote the library movement in the state by creating an esprit de corps among Alabama's fledgling library community and to press for public funding for library service. "Let us demonstrate by what we do," association president Thomas M. Owen urged the group, "that we are alive to an appreciation of the library as one of the great, if not the greatest, educational forces of the time." With the universality characteristic of early library movement rhetoric, Owen called on Alabama librarians not to rest until "every community in the state is properly supplied with good books free to the use of all the people."

Along with the progressive desire for social improvement expressed in the first library association meeting, however, came an impulse toward social control. In his 1967 book, Search for Order, Robert H. Wiebe contends that American progressivism was about establishing a social order in times that were decidedly "out of joint." For southern progressives, this search for order was seen most vividly in the emergence of racial segregation and the disfranchisement of blacks. In the aftermath of Civil War and Reconstruction, white southern reformers believed that segregation was necessary for social stability and peaceful race relations. Historian Dewey Grantham calls segregation a "fundamental component" of southern progressivism. For Jack Temple Kirby, it was the South's "seminal reform." Freed from the dangers and complications of building new institutions in a heterogeneous society, white reformers could establish a public system of schools and libraries. Thus, both segregation and the public library movement emerged from progressive reform at the turn of the twentieth century.

As a result, the southern library movement was characterized by a complex and often contradictory set of priorities. Though seemingly at odds, a desire for both social uplift and social control drove library supporters to act as they did. Their racism was a paternalistic sort. White library boards evidenced a belief in the inherent intellectual inferiority of African Americans, but also in a responsibility to do something to help them. Libraries, they felt, served to improve their users socially and culturally. This was true for blacks as well as whites. Library boards considered it worthwhile to provide library service for blacks, so long as that service was inexpensive and did not suggest in any way a social equality among the races.

Birmingham and Mobile, the state's two largest cities, were the first to offer library service to urban African Americans. Both cities' support for black library development was well within the accepted parameters set by the segregated society. Both excluded blacks from the main libraries; Birmingham even forbade the sharing of books among the races. Birmingham and Mobile contributed money to the operation of separate black libraries, but not much. The two cities hired black librarians, but only to serve black patrons and only at a fraction of a white librarian's salary. Much of the resources and labor of the black library movement came from the black community itself rather than from the white boards. Nonetheless, the boards were proud of their "Negro libraries." Birmingham's library board boasted that its black branch was the largest one south of Louisville. Mobile's believed theirs was "an experiment in interracial cooperation" that placed it within the foremost among southern cities in the area of race relations. The existence of segregated public libraries for blacks soothed the conscience of southern moderates and provided evidence of their "progressive" behavior.


Birmingham was a New South industrial town exhibiting a complex progressivism that carried over into library development. Many of its iron barons and other industrial capitalists believed that they stood to gain from the existence of a large uneducated black labor pool. But a moderate white contingent saw social benefits in extending library service and other educational resources to blacks. Combining their efforts with those of the black community, they opened the state's first public library for African Americans in 1918. The library grew in popularity, physical space, and holdings and by the 1930s Birmingham's African-American branch had become one of the largest and most important in the region. Library service for African Americans in Birmingham developed within well-defined limits, however. Inherent in the reform-minded attitudes of the white board members was a social and legal obligation to sustain racial segregation. It was an obligation they took seriously and that they fulfilled with unwavering consistency.

Birmingham was still a new city at the turn of the century. It was founded in 1871, at the intersection of two railroad lines located at the southwest end of the Appalachian Mountains. Birmingham and its suburbs emerged throughout a series of parallel ridges and valleys ranging from 300 to 1,200 feet above sea level. The rocky and barren soil of the region was ill-suited for cotton production. But the ridges and mountains of Jefferson County did offer one of the Southeast's largest deposits of iron ore: three major seams of red hematite. In addition, the site was centrally located in relation to the state's largest coalfields, and it offered limestone in abundance. These three resources, ore, coal, and lime, were the essential ingredients for iron production, and their proximity to Birmingham made the new community uniquely qualified among the cities of the New South to become a leader in iron production. Henry DeBardeleben and T. T. Hillman built the area's first blast furnace in 1880 and by the middle of the decade Birmingham was experiencing an astonishing rate of growth both in industrial development and population. By 1900, Alabama ranked fourth among the states in pig iron production with 8.6% of the national total. The city's population increased by 245% in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The industrial boomtown that boosters had begun to call "The Magic City" was more modern and more progressive than any city in Alabama, but this spirit of reform had its limits. The public library movement exhibited a progressive zeal. Birmingham opened its first free library in 1909. Located in City Hall, it held 20,000 volumes. By 1918, the library board had secured an annual appropriation from the city of over $25,000 and had opened three branches. In support of this movement, a booster wrote that "Every additional agency that will make us esteem human life, irrespective of the strain of blood or color of skin, may well be encouraged and worked for by every man and woman." Such rhetoric conveys the progressive tone of the movement, also its contradictions. For while the library supporters spoke in universals, they had to admit that the 80,000 blacks in the city received nothing but sympathy in regard to library service.

The neglect of the intellectual needs of blacks was consistent with their perceived place in Birmingham's economy and its society. In a black worker, employers valued a strong back, not intelligence. Most jobs in Birmingham's furnaces and mines were low-paying, unskilled positions that required physical strength and endurance but little else. Work for blacks was the dirtiest, hottest, and most dangerous in the city. Pay was often barely above subsistence level. Most blacks that moved to Birmingham did so in the hope of improving the quality of their lives. They migrated from rural areas in Alabama and surrounding states to escape the cycle of debt and poverty that was all life as a sharecropper or tenant farmer offered. They hoped for a brighter economic future, one in which they held some control over their own destinies. But a rigid system of "industrial segregation" limited opportunities for African Americans. Management and white-dominated unions created a system of advancement that allowed upward mobility for whites and insured that blacks were restricted to what they referred to as "nigger jobs."

Maintaining a high illiteracy rate within the black population suited the interests of capitalism, or so some industrialists believed. It helped to preserve a large supply of inexpensive, unskilled industrial laborers. White leaders often thought that workers who could read would only cause trouble; they were more likely to unionize. In 1912 Birmingham industrialist Colonel John C. Maben complained that there were simply not "enough illiterate niggers to go around." Maben believed that attempts to provide educational facilities for black iron workers were merely "coddling" the laborers. Other whites simply assumed that blacks had little need or desire for public library service. Under such circumstances, adequate access to libraries for the African-American community would have been entirely inconsistent with contemporary racial attitudes.

Despite the reluctance of city leaders to provide public funding for black libraries before 1918, the African-American community in Birmingham had been working to extend access to their race since the late nineteenth century. Black educators and students played the most active part, raising money to open a facility for their own community. This was accomplished largely through entertainments held in the African-American schools. When the fund reached $350, school superintendent John H. Phillips authorized the opening of a library in the black Slater School. The facility opened in 1898 with an initial collection of 1,100 volumes. It was free for teachers, but the general public was charged a two-dollar fee.

This effort by black educators and students to provide library service to African Americans in Birmingham foreshadowed black library development in the state for the next fifty years. The Slater School Library added only a hundred volumes in the eight years following its opening. It was, however, a pioneering effort considering that the first free public library for African Americans, located in Memphis, was opened as late as 1903. According to black library scholar Eliza Atkins Gleason, there was no service for southern blacks before 1900. Birmingham's diminutive facility began a trend that would carry through the decades before the civil rights movement. The experience of the Slater School Library demonstrated that service for blacks would, where it existed at all, be separate from that of the white population. It demonstrated that separate would be unequal. It also showed that whites would be reluctant to allow significant public expenditure to promote access to educational information by African Americans. Success would depend on the efforts of black communities and sometimes on intervention by outside agents as much as it would on public funding and the good will of white library boards.

White library boards eventually played an important part in black library development, however, and their actions reflected the complex and contradictory nature of southern reform. Board members tended to be more moderate in their racial biases and placed a higher priority on educational and cultural resources for African Americans than did the general white population. Blacks brought pressure upon white library supporters who responded by lending support to indigenous black efforts, sometimes in the face of opposition by other whites who argued that blacks neither wanted nor needed library service. But the actions of the boards, while contributing to library development, served to affirm rather than challenge the racial order of the region.


Excerpted from A Right to Read by Patterson Toby Graham. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Black Libraries and White Attitudes, The Early Years: Birmingham and Mobile, 1918–1931,
2. Black Libraries and White Attitudes II: The Depression Years,
3. African-American Communities and the Black Public Library Movement, 1941–1954,
4. The Read-In Movement: Desegregating Alabama's Public Libraries, 1960–1963,
5. Librarians and the Civil Rights Movement, 1955–1965,
Bibliographic Essay,

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