A Brief History of Library Service to African Americans; Self-Education Paved the Way on the 300-Year Journey toward Equal Access

By Wheeler, Maurice; Johnson-Houston, Debbie | American Libraries, February 2004 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of Library Service to African Americans; Self-Education Paved the Way on the 300-Year Journey toward Equal Access


Wheeler, Maurice, Johnson-Houston, Debbie, American Libraries


Although rarely examined in much depth, the development of library services for African Americans provides a rich and complex record of social, economic, and intellectual evolution, and parallels in many ways that of the literary activities of white Americans. For example, in the past decade, book clubs have become popular in most U.S. communities, and special media attention has been paid to African Americans' interest and participation in them. Yet, book clubs aren't new to African Americans. Formal, informal, and even secret book and reading clubs are all part of the rich heritage that helped to shape African-American reading habits and literary traditions.

At the end of the 18th century, African Americans who could read were virtually nonexistent (or invisible), except for a few in northern and free states. In fact, those in power saw lack of education as the key to slaves' continued subordination. In what became a social, economic, and political mandate, the education of slaves was prohibited by law in all southern states before the Civil War, with the exception of Tennessee. Slaves who could read did so in secret, and they made little progress in their clandestine efforts to increase the reading levels of others.

A direct result of these antebellum policies was that by 1900, over half of America's black population, 90% of whom had remained in the South after slavery ended, could not read or write, according to Pamela Spence Richards in "Library Services and the African American Intelligentsia before 1960" (Libraries and Culture, Winter 1998).

Slaves and free men in northern states had a variety of ways of learning to read, often supported by law. A New York state law required that a slave be taught to read the Bible by the age of 18 or be set free; as a result, church-related and Sunday (Sabbath) schools became very popular. Using the Bible as the foundation, Sunday schools in 1803 began to teach children, and eventually adults, to read and write. The New York Female Union Society to Promote Sabbath Schools even established a lending library in 1823, Marilyn Pettit reported in "Liberty and Literacy," an essay in the 1998 University of Illinois GSLIS book Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship (John Mark Tucker, editor).

Nonetheless, blacks who lived in most major northern cities were still prohibited from using libraries or participating in literary activities. So they formed their own. During a period of self-actualization that began in 1828 and lasted for almost 100 years, more than 50 African American literary and library societies were founded in northern cities. One notable example is the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, which was cofounded in 1833 by Robert Purvis, the affluent son of a white cotton broker and a free-born African American woman whose mother was a former slave.

"Negro" libraries arise

The legal foundation for segregated libraries was established by the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1896. For the next 58 years, the practice of "separate but equal" governed the establishment and operation of public accommodations, including libraries. The new law placed the responsibility of providing facilities and services to blacks with each state.

Although it was soon evident that states were not providing equal services, it took many years to amass enough irrefutable evidence to successfully challenge the "separate but equal" premise.

However, prior to Plessy v. Ferguson, libraries were not segregated; African Americans were simply excluded altogether, except to either return or collect materials for white patrons. In the South, they were more constrained by the political system than in the North, but eventually important barriers to access were slowly being removed.

African Americans living in such cities as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Houston even had access to black public libraries that had independent governance.

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