Case Study: Atlanta

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Photograph of two patrons reading in the West Hunter Branch of Atlanta's public library system, ca. 1960. The West Hunter Branch of Atlanta's public library system opened in 1949 to serve African American patrons. Courtesy of the Auburn Avenue Research Library via Digital Library of Georgia.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Atlanta was experiencing unprecedented growth of both its white and black populations as a result of the in-migration of rural southerners to growing urban centers. Atlanta was also home to a network of black colleges and universities as well as a thriving business district on Auburn Avenue. These factors contributed to an influential and well-educated black middle class, which shaped the city’s particular public library history.

Atlanta's first public library branch for African Americans was the Auburn Branch, officially opened on July 25, 1921, in a red-brick building at 333 Auburn Avenue. From 1921 until the branch closed in 1959, numerous African American women librarians managed the branch and its educational and community programming. These included Annie L. McPheeters, who was responsible for the development of the special, non-circulating "Negro History Collection" and served Atlanta’s African American libraries from 1934 until her retirement in 1966. The Auburn Branch was a community center for African Americans located in the heart of its political and cultural district. Notable Atlantans, such as civic and political leader John Wesley Dobbs, frequented the branch, while the women who ran it represented the library in civil and political matters outside its walls.

By the 1940s, increasing numbers of African Americans migrated to Atlanta's west side. In response, the city built a second branch to serve blacks. On December 6, 1949, the West Hunter Branch opened on the corner of West Hunter Street and Morris Brown Drive. The Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System formally desegregated in 1959.