In February 1930, Ernestine Rose of the New York Public Library in Harlem reached out to W.E.B. Du Bois with an invitation to speak at an event for a large group of library students.
Rose was renowned for her work to integrate the NYPL, providing services to black patrons and making the 135th Street Branch in Harlem a hub of community and cultural connection for the area’s growing African American population in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance.
Through these endeavors, Rose had gotten acquainted with the founding member of the NAACP and it’s easy to imagine she felt comfortable and confident reaching out to Du Bois for his participation in her upcoming event – after all, he’d been involved with other engagements at the library.
However, Du Bois’s response might have come with a bit of a sting. He politely declined her invitation due to another commitment, also noting:
I think I ought to add, however, that even if I were in New York City at the time and free, I should not feel that I ought to speak for the New York Library or for your branch. And this is because of my increasing dissatisfaction with the treatment which the New York Library is giving colored library assistants in general, and Mrs. Regina Andrews in particular...It seems to me time that race discrimination should be taken out of our public library system.
On the same date that he wrote Rose, Du Bois penned a letter to Ferdinand Q. Morton, a successful lawyer and Democratic leader in Harlem to explain the situation:
For a long time no Negroes were admitted at all and the library branches, even in colored districts, paid just as little attention as possible to the colored constituency. Then, a few colored Assistants were appointed but their promotion has been very slow.
Mrs. Regina Andrews entered the system several years ago, coming from library work in Chicago. According to the statement of Mr. Franklin F. Hopper, Chief of the Circulation Department, her record has been excellent, and he is “sorry” for the delay in her promotion and did not blame her for being “impatient.” He assured me that the promotion of many candidates had been just as slow, but this, I believe, is the case only with candidates who have not done their work or passed their tests. Mrs. Andrews has done her work well, and yet she has had to fight every inch of the way. She has continually been doing, as she is now, the work of a higher grade, while being paid for a lower grade. She has been promised promotion and the promises just as repeatedly broken. The objection to her promotion comes from white branch librarians...
For several months, Mrs. Andrews has been eligible for appointment as First Assistant Librarian. After much hesitation and dilly-dallying, Miss Rose of the 135th Street Branch, recommended her without promising to receive her as her own Assistant...
In her article “Breaking the Color Barrier: Regina Andrews and the New York Public Library,” Ethelene Whitmire notes that in order to be promoted, Andrews needed recommendations from two branch librarians who would be willing to hire her as first assistant. Andrews received such a recommendation from a librarian at another branch, but in her recommendation from the 135th Street Branch, Rose indicated that she might hire Andrews to serve as second assistant – a position that didn’t even exist.
This action essentially invalidated the recommendation and stalled Andrews’ promotion.
As a result of this conflict, W.E.B. Du Bois reached out to the then acting secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, who joined the protest, as indicated in a letter to Rose: “Under the circumstances, I do not feel that I care to speak at the library until this situation is settled satisfactorily, not only with regard to Mrs. Andrews but until barriers based on color prejudice are removed from the path of any colored person in the New York Public Library System.”
Regina Andrews (nee Anderson) was born in Chicago, 1901, of Native American, Jewish, East Indian, Swedish and African descent – she had one grandparent who was a Confederate general, another was African born in Madagascar. She studied at Wilberforce University and Columbia University. In 1923, she visited New York City on vacation and that was it – she fell in love with the Big Apple and never moved back to Chicago.
Andrews applied for work at the NYPL and, according to Whitmire, “she had expected to encounter no resistance from the library administration since New York City was supposedly at least as cosmopolitan as Chicago, if not more so. Actually, though fewer African Americans lived in Chicago than New York City, the Chicago library hired more of them to work in its libraries.”
When Andrews was asked about her race on the library application, she simply wrote, “I’m American.” When the topic arose again during a follow-up interview with the library a few days later, she was told “You’re not an American. You’re not white.”
Because of her skin color, Andrews was informed upon being hired that she would only be able to work at the Harlem branch. While that limited her options, it was a vibrant, thrilling time to be in Harlem. Under the supervision of Ernestine Rose at the 135th Street branch, Andrews was passionate about helping organize community outreach projects and playing an integral role in the Harlem Renaissance, both through her work at the library and by hosting a literary salon in her home, writing plays, and supporting a theater group founded by Du Bois.
By 1929, Andrews’ relationship with Rose was starting to sour – Andrews sensed that she was not being fairly compensated for her contributions and that she was denied opportunities for advancement. When she realized she needed help to win this battle, Andrews reached out to Du Bois and the NAACP.
In June 1930, three and half months after the NAACP intervened on behalf of Andrews with the NYPL, she received the news that she was being transferred to the Rivington Street Branch and promoted to assistant branch librarian.
Eight years later, Andrews made history as the first woman of color to be put in charge of running a library branch. She was appointed Acting Supervising Librarian at the 115 Street Branch in Washington Heights where she would serve for the next 21 years. The occasion – as noted in the October 29, 1938 issue of the New York Amsterdam News – was marked with a “colorful tea” celebration, attended by librarians from other branches of the NYPL, heads from the NYPL and prominent members of the Harlem community. For her achievement, Andrews also received a medal from the Women’s Service League at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.
After completing her thesis, “A Public Library Assists in Improving Race Relations,” she asked the chief of circulation to send documentation of her contributions to W.E.B. Du Bois, who according to Whitmire responded:
I am glad to have this confirmation of my own estimate of Mrs. Andrews’ work. I have known her over twenty years and was in some small way instrumental in making the fight by which the barrier against appointing a colored woman, even as first assistant, much less [as] librarian of a branch, was begun. My own impression has been that she was and is a most valuable worker, and for that reason I cannot understand why her salary should be the lowest paid [of} any branch librarian; or why there is apparently no immediate prospect of her earning more in the near future.
Learn more about History Vault NAACP Papers and other History Vault modules.
ProQuest History Vault NAACP Papers: Special Subjects, “New York Public Library and promotion of black librarians” in Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus, Folder ID 001421-026-0820
Whitmire, Ethelene. “Breaking the Color Barrier: Regina Andrews and the New York Public Library.” Libraries & the Cultural Record; 2007; 42; 4. Pg 401-459. Available from ProQuest Central.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.