Southern Services for African Americans

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The Reverend John T. Enwright awarding diplomas to three children at closing exercises of a summer reading program at Dart Hall Library in Charleston, South Carolina, 1952. Courtesy of the Charleston Archive at Charleston County Public Library via South Carolina Digital Library.

Despite the successes of libraries for blacks in urban areas like Atlanta, the growth of public libraries that served African Americans across the US South was scattered and slow. Some of the first facilities for African Americans were school libraries in Memphis, Tennessee (1903), and Galveston, Texas (1904), that opened their doors to serve a broader public. Other early libraries, like those in Lexington, Kentucky, and Jacksonville, Florida (1905), opened as segregated reading rooms for blacks within white libraries. Still others provided minimal service to black communities via bookmobiles or a single day each week on which blacks could visit the local library while it was closed to white patrons. Of the free standing public libraries for blacks, only a very few, like Brevard Street Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, were autonomous. Services for African Americans remained completely absent in many areas in the early decades of the twentieth century.

A few important sources would help fund the creation of African American library services in the South: Andrew Carnegie’s funding for segregated branches and Works Progress Administration library projects to improve rural services. But by 1946, just under one-third of the public library systems in the US South reported some form of service to African Americans (188 of 597), making library service available to about 34.2 percent of the black populations of these states. Despite a lack of funds, materials, and often, autonomy, existing African American libraries provided vital reading content to their patrons and formed important community spaces for discussion and education.