Introduction

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Atlanta's Carnegie public library, built in 1902. This library was for white patrons only. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center via Digital Library of Georgia.

As public libraries spread across the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, state and local racial segregation laws were denying African Americans access to public facilities across the US South. In other regions of the country, state and local governments supported discriminatory labor and housing practices that, in concert with prevailing racist social ideas, restricted African American access to public spaces as well. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the "separate but equal" facilities as constitutional in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which justified the creation of segregated public spaces for African Americans, including schools and libraries, that were in practice inferior and underfunded compared to those available to whites.

As public facilities, the earliest public libraries in southern states excluded African Americans by law. When Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of a new public library in Atlanta in 1902, scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois, then a professor at Atlanta University and a strong proponent of African American education, spoke out publicly against the injustice of a public facility that refused service to a full third of Atlanta’s population. The work of DuBois and other activists did not succeed in integrating public libraries, but it would bring funding for colored branches to the attention of philanthropists like Carnegie. In 1905, Louisville, Kentucky, would open the first free public library for African American readers staffed and operated entirely by African Americans. Atlanta's first library branch for African Americans would not open until 1921.