Texas had only a few public libraries when steel magnate Andrew Carnegie established a philanthropic program that ultimately funded 1,687 public libraries and 108 academic libraries in the United States and 2,509 libraries worldwide between 1883 and 1929. With African Americans denied access to some public libraries by Jim Crow laws, Carnegie grants funded twelve Colored Carnegie libraries in eight states, mostly in the South, and provided self-education, community centers, and a place of respite from the segregated world outside.
Houston Public Library, the city’s first central public library, was funded by a Carnegie grant and opened in downtown Houston. Julia Ideson became head librarian for forty years and greatly expanded the Houston library system. In 1907 African American citizens, under the leadership of Ernest Ollington Smith, began a campaign to initiate library service for Blacks. Consequently, Ideson established the first Houston library branch for the Black community in a room in Sam Houston Negro High School on May 5, 1909. She arranged for the donation of 270 volumes by Houston library trustees along with $200 to purchase an additional 264 books. Ideson also trained the first Black librarian, Emma Myers.
Comprising about 30 percent of the Houston population, the Houston Black community warranted a larger library. Booker T. Washington, then the most prominent African American in the country, along with former Houstonian Emmett J. Scott, helped obtain funding for a Houston Black library from Andrew Carnegie. In 1911 the state of Texas chartered a library for Blacks, and the city of Houston, Andrew Carnegie, and the Negro Library Association jointly executed a contract for the facility. Ernest O. Smith, chairman of the Negro Library Board, and Walter L. D. Johnson, Sr., raised $1,500 and acquired land, then on the corner of Robin and Frederick streets (on Polk between Shaw and Smith streets in 2020), for the library. The Carnegie Corporation awarded a $15,000 grant for the building. Booker T. Washington’s son-in-law William Sydney Pittman served as architect (the only African American architect for any Carnegie Library). Julia Ideson volunteered to train the inaugural staff; the librarian, Bessie B. Osborne, served for twenty years. The Houston Colored Carnegie Library opened with about 35,000 books in 1913 at 1112 Frederick Street. The one-story brick building included both children’s and adult reading rooms, a staff room, basement, and an auditorium with seating for 210.
After eight years of independent operation by an all-Black library board, in 1921 the Houston Public Library System assumed administrative responsibility. With no Black representation on the Houston Library Board, some in the African American community opposed this arrangement. In response a Negro Consultation Committee was appointed in 1922, but it disbanded after two years with no reason recorded.
Like the city’s segregated schools, the segregated library suffered from chronically inadequate funding. In 1953, facing a possible law suit by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), at the urging of influential Blacks and under the progressive leadership of Mayor Roy Hofheinz, the city quietly implemented token desegregation of the previously Whites-only Houston public library system. With no public announcement, Blacks learned only gradually about library availability.
Appointed to the library board by Hofheinz, Jack Valenti successfully pushed the reluctant board to complete integration of the library. The library director, Harriett Dickson Reynolds, expressed concerns to the library board that some White parents would object to participation of Black children in group activities such as story hours. Initially, library desegregation applied only to adults and excluded Black children. Additionally, Blacks had access only to reference books and had to enter through a side door and request the books from a librarian. Even so, library desegregation occurred many years before desegregation of other Houston facilities.
Circulation at the Houston Colored Carnegie Library reached more than 50,000 books in 1923, the first year reported, and peaked at more than 80,000 in 1931, then declined precipitously and continuously as Blacks moved to other neighborhoods. On July 31, 1961, with few patrons, limited circulation, and access limited by nearby freeway construction, the city closed the Houston Colored Carnegie Library, with no public announcement to the press or to the NAACP. Earlier that month, in a letter to Mayor Lewis Cutrer, Harriett Dickson Reynolds stated, “With the closing of Colored Carnegie Branch, the library system is for all practical purposes integrated.”
In February 1962, with the building in poor condition and directly in the path of a Clay Avenue extension, the building was auctioned, and the buyer razed it immediately, preserving only the cornerstone, which was subsequently housed in the offices of the Houston Negro Chamber of Commerce. In 1964 the city opened a library that was considered a replacement—a one-story brick building named for W. L. D. Johnson, Sr., a co-founder of the Houston Colored Carnegie Library, in a predominantly Black neighborhood at 3511 Reed Road. In the 2020s the structure was a police department storefront adjacent to a newer Johnson Neighborhood Library.
Matthew Griffis, “Cornerstones of Community: Segregated Public Libraries, Carnegie Philanthropy and Houston’s Colored Branch, 1913–61,” Presentation at the African American Library at the Gregory School, Houston, April 12, 2018. Houston Public Library Records, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston. Theodore Jones, Carnegie Libraries Across America (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997). William Henry Kellar, Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). Cheryl Knott Malone, “Unannounced and unexpected: the desegregation of Houston Public Library in the early 1950s,” The Free Library, January 1, 2007 (https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Unannounced+and+unexpected:+the+desegregation+of+Houston+Public...-a0161980353), accessed June 24, 2020. Fayrene Neuman Mays, A History of Public Library Service to Negroes in Houston, Texas, 1907–1962 (M.S. thesis, Atlanta University, 1964).
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