Magazine article American Libraries

Sadie Peterson Delaney: Pioneer Bibliotherapist

Magazine article American Libraries

Sadie Peterson Delaney: Pioneer Bibliotherapist

Article excerpt

A beacon of hope in the segregated South, Sadie Delaney brought books and pride to recuperating black veterans.

In 1983 New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture received seven bound volumes of letters, clippings, and photographs attesting to the accomplishments of Sadie Peterson Delaney, a librarian who became an outstanding twentieth-century practitioner of bibliotherapy. Tarough these letters from major and minor figures--both black and white--in the fields of literature, politics, library service, hospital administration, and race relations, there emerges a portrait of a woman of determination, energy, enthusiasm, patience, and magnetism. She chose to use these considerable attributes to bring books into the lives of people who were unable to get them for themselves, working with hospitalized black veterans in the segregated South from the 19208 to the 19508.

Sara (Sadie) Marie Johnson Peterson Delaney was for 34 years (1924-58) the chief librarian of the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Ala. In this capacity, she not only provided library service to thousands of physically and mentally disabled African Americans, but also developed the art of bibliotherapy to such an extent that her methods received worldwide recognition.

Born Feb. 26, 1889, in Rochester, N.Y., to James and Julia Frances (Hawkins) Johnson, Delaney completed high school in Poughkeepsie, where her family had moved. She also attended Miss McGovern's School of Social Work there for one year. As Mrs. Peterson, she began her professional career at the 135th Street Branch of New York Public Library, and received her training at its library school from 1920-21. This branch played an important role in the community as Harlem shifted from a neighborhood of nativeborn and European whites to one of African Americans and blacks from the Caribbean.

NYPL and its staff were deeply committed to meeting the needs of this changing population, who had a growing interest in African and diasporic cultures. The library director's annual report for 1920 notes: "Special attention has been given this year to the development of the 135th Street Branch. Two interesting and significant features are the progress in children's work and the employment of colored assistants." The report further states that use of the children's reading room had greatly increased and that both circulation of books and registration of new readers had gone up. "The interest of the parents is evident; they have curiosity and sympathy and well understand what such a room can mean to the community life."

Cited for exceptional service, Delaney worked with children from public and parochial schools, with juvenile delinquents and boy scouts. While serving special groups, Delaney became interested in blind people, and so learned not only Braille but also Moonpoint, a simpler system of embossed reading invented in England by William Moon in 1847.

This period, known as the Harlem or Negro Renaissance, was a time of artistic creativity and political activity. Black Americans were looking at their roots in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southern folkways. Jazz was the music of the day, and literary salons where black writers could meet white publishers flourished. The 135th Street Branch was part and parcel of the intellectual, musical, and artistic ventures of the day, offering hundreds of programs from 1920-23 that Delaney often arranged. These programs included W.E.B. Du Bois on Negro creative literature; James Weldon Johnson on Haiti; and scholars and community leaders such as William H. Ferris, George Edmund Haynes, Hubert Harrison, and Fred Moore, editor of the New York Age. The library held annual art exhibitions and programs featuring African music and concerts by black musicians.

Delaney belonged to a writer's club and was politically active as well. In 1923 she sought the help of prominent people to restore a French government scholarship Augusta Savage had won to study sculpture in Fontainbleau. …

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