Thomas Fountain Blue

Biographical Portrait

Thomas Fountain Blue
Librarian, Clergyman

Western Branch Archives

The Reverend Thomas F. Blue, the nation’s first African-American to head a public library, was a respected leader in the civic, religious, and educational life of the Louisville black community.

The son of former slaves, Blue was born in Farmville, Virginia. Upon graduating from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1888, he gave a farewell address in which he urged his classmates to “let our every movement be characterized by unity of aim, unity of purpose and unity of act; then and not until then will the dark cloud of ignorance, superstition, and intemperance disperse, and education, intelligence, and virtue spread over our land.”

After teaching school in his native Virginia, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1898 from Richmond Theological Seminary. He went to work as a secretary of the YMCA, serving Spanish-American War soldiers. He then moved to Louisville to work as secretary of the YMCA from 1899 to 1905.

On September 23, 1905, Blue when was chosen to head the Louisville Western Branch Library, the first public library in the nation to serve African-American patrons with an exclusively African-American staff. What began in three rented rooms of a private residence in Western Louisville moved in 1908 into a dedicated Carnegie building, which has become a Louisville landmark at the corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets. In 1914, Mr. Blue opened Louisville’s second Carnegie branch library for African-Americans -- this time in Eastern Louisville.

In 1919, with the addition of the two new branches, a “Colored Department” was created, the first example of such an organization in any public library system in the United States. Blue was made head of the department which included eight assistants. In addition to the two Carnegie branch buildings, this Department included two junior high schools, 15 stations and 80 classroom collections in 29 buildings -- a total of 99 centers for the circulation of books for home use in 46 buildings in Louisville and Jefferson County.

Although Rev. Blue spoke of himself as “untrained, like Dewey was untrained,” his most far-reaching work was the creation of an apprentice class for those wanting to enter library service. Blue’s class drew students from as far away as Houston and led to the establishment of the Hampton Library School in Virginia. From 1905 until his death 30 years later, Rev. Thomas F. Blue served the Louisville Free Public Library, achieving national recognition as a pioneer in the field of public service.