Most of us are aware of the sit-ins and other civil rights activities of 1950s and ‘60s to protest racially segregated transportation, lunch counters, schools and universities in the South. But are you familiar with the historic efforts to desegregate public libraries?
Probably not, and Wayne and Shirley Wiegand want to change that.
The Wiegands co-authored The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism which reveals the inspiring and world-changing efforts of “hidden figures” in American history – courageous people who fought to make libraries the heart of democracy for all members of their communities.
I recently spoke to Wayne (library historian and professor emeritus of American Studies at Florida State University) and Shirley (professor emeritus of law at Marquette University) about the importance of telling these stories, what sparked the idea for the book and the process of researching it.
As the fight for civil rights gained momentum in 1950s and into the ’60s, most of the nation’s attention focused on high-profile events and leaders of the movement. Meanwhile, smaller battles were being waged throughout the South where young Black people simply sought the right to visit their local public libraries.
These activists are civil rights heroes that history has forgotten – and that the Wiegands want to make sure we remember.
During the Jim Crow-era, some southern towns had designated libraries for Black patrons, but with holdings that were often worn-out, outdated cast-offs from the main branches, Wayne explained. Other libraries had segregated entrances and reading rooms for Black and white visitors. In yet other locations, no library services at all were available to people of color.
African Americans who dared enter off-limits libraries were ignored or asked to leave. Occasionally the police were called to escort them out and some protestors were beaten and ended up in jail.
Was this an effort to suppress access to information for Black community members – an extension of the laws that forbade enslaved people to learn to read and write?
There was some of that, the Wiegands agreed. “There was also an assumption that Black people just weren’t interested in literacy or having an education, and it was thought that they didn’t have the same capacity as white people to learn,” Shirley added. “Either way, the policies were intentionally racist.”
Meanwhile, the Wiegands wrote, “Like whites across the country, Blacks perceived public libraries as important civic institution that helped create an informed citizenry and offered myriad opportunities for self-improvement.”
As early as the 1930s, daring individuals started testing the boundaries of Jim Crow laws by requesting library cards or slipping into reading areas meant for “whites only.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, emboldened by highly publicized protests at lunch counters and on public transportation, as well as with the ruling on Brown v. the Board of Education, increasing numbers of organized sit-ins were held and law suits were filed to integrate local libraries.
These are the stories that are investigated in The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South.
“We discovered in our research there are a whole bunch of young people who did these protests of segregation at public libraries and they've never been recognized,” Wayne said. “We hope this book brings them recognition while some of them are still active.”
When asked what inspired the Wiegands to research segregation in libraries of the South, Wayne explained he kept stumbling upon the topic while researching an earlier book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library using the ProQuest Black Historical Newspapers online database.
“These stories kept coming up in my research,” he explained, “and they’re obviously compelling. This is a blind spot in civil rights history. The national media largely ignored the protests at public libraries so a lot of people didn’t know about them, and still don’t. But regional Black newspapers followed these stories closely.”
It points to the important role that specialized newspapers have played in capturing history. “Without access to the Black newspapers, this research wouldn’t have been possible,” said Wayne.
When Wayne searched the ProQuest Black Historical Newspapers database for information about segregated public libraries in the South, thousands of hits came up – and he read them all, making a list of cases to be further investigated. Then he turned to Shirley, who dug into the legal research, mining federal, state and local court records for relevant information and translating it into more accessible language and concepts.
Because The Desegregation of Public Libraries is so dense with facts, I wondered when the Wiegands knew they’d done enough research to start writing – and how in general a researcher can know when they’ve gathered enough information for their project. According to Shirley, Wayne is never done researching (he discovered the topic for his next book while exploring the database for this one), but setting parameters helped them narrow their focus for the book and ensure their research was exhaustive.
The Wiegands homed in on specific locations – Memphis, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina; Petersburg and Danville, Virginia; and the states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana – and cases that had a high degree of documentation they were able to access.
“We’re only telling part of a much larger story,” Wayne said. “We hope our book encourages others to look at the history of segregation in southern public libraries by state, or to explore public library segregation in the north. “
“There are many more stories to be told,” Wayne continued, “and conversations to have about how racially segregated neighborhoods have affected library services around the county.”
Upcoming event! Wayne and Shirley Wiegand, authors of The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South, appear at the New Orleans Public Library Main Branch on Sunday, June 24, 2-4 pm for an event called “Hidden Figures in American Library History” featuring four panelists who protested the segregation of public libraries all over the Deep South.
Discover the digital resource Wayne Wiegand used to launch his research journey into the desegregation of public libraries in the South. ProQuest Black Historical Newspapers primary source material essential to the study of American history and African-American culture, history, politics and the arts.
Books by Wayne Wiegand: