Western Branch: The First African American Public Library
Today, libraries serve all of us -- the rich, poor, young and old. They show us where, collectively, we have been; as well as point the way to what we may become. Yet, there was a time in America when these doors of knowledge, culture, self-improvement and universal education were closed to people of color. When the Louisville Western Branch Library opened in 1905, it took its place in history as the first in the nation to provide library services exclusively for the African American community, using only African American staff.
For nearly a full century, the Louisville Western Branch Library has remained a separate and distinct flame: an unwavering source of individual self-enlightenment and a beacon of community strength and support.
Following the Civil War, despite constitutional amendments granting them freedom, citizenship and certain voting rights, African American desires for individual fulfillment and equality seemed unachievable. In the South, everything was legally segregated. And throughout the nation you couldn't find a public library which would dream of opening its doors of self-enlightenment to people of color. Most felt powerless to challenge the system. Yet in the late 1800's and early 1900's, African Americans in Kentucky -- in particular Louisville -- were among the leaders in a national struggle to address the injustices this system imposed.
A growing population of African American readers helped spur a few individuals to challenge the 1902 legislation which created a free public library system in Louisville. One such person was Albert Meyzeek. During a temporary assignment as principal of Central High School, Meyzeek, concerned about the lack of adequate reference and reading materials at his school, argued persistently, and persuasively, to the City Library Committee that African Americans should have access to this proposed system.
By the time the Louisville Free Public Library opened in 1905, its plan called for the establishment of a branch library for its "colored" citizens with funds already pledged by the wealthy industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. Until the Carnegie building could be completed, the City rented three rooms of a private residence at 1125 West Chestnut Street, in the heart of Louisville's predominantly black westside neighborhood.
Above the door was a sign which read, "Knowledge is power." Carnegie gifts were instrumental in erecting and furnishing a dedicated library building which opened in 1908 on the Southwest corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets.
The Reverend Thomas Fountain Blue, a native of Virginia who had been educated as a theologian at Virginia Union University, was chosen branch librarian. The nation's first African American to head a public library, created a high quality operation which the community and the library authorities declared was a success from the beginning. The Louisville Western Branch Library, a separate African American facility independently staffed by African Americans to serve its citizens fostered a feeling of "perfect welcome, pride in ownership and unqualified privilege.
"The library does more than furnish facts and circulate books. With its reading and study rooms, its lecture and classrooms, it forms a center from which radiates many influences for general betterment. Aside from circulating books, and furnishing facts in reference work, the library encourages and assists all efforts to an educational end, and the advancement of our people in the city. The people feel that the library belongs to them, and that it may be used for anything that makes for their welfare."
Blue's work began with a main focus on children and developing an expanding pool of young readers. He organized a Children's Department placed under the supervision of Mrs. Rachel D. Harris. Together they developed special entertainments, story hours, debate and reading clubs which proved successful and meaningful to the lives of black children. National African American poet and local educator, Joseph S. Cotter each year sponsored a children's storytelling contest, presenting cash awards and a Cup to the winners, who received statewide and even national attention.
And there was the prominent Douglasss Debating Club for high school boys who researched and argued such topics as whether "The Right of Suffrage Should be Extended to Women" or whether "The North American Indian has a Greater Opportunity for Development than the Afro-American." The young men who participated in these kind of activities went on to enroll in prestigious universities. Also in the first decade of the library's founding, Blue and his team would build an extensive collection of African American history, literature and significant writings. Literary clubs, story hours and other educational activities sponsored by the Library are as popular by the Library are as popular and widely supported by different users in the community today as they were decades ago.
The story of the Louisville Western Branch Library is a story that continues to inspire and motivate all of us to use and offer our support to what has now become a landmark in our community. It is a treasure-house of thought and ideas -- where everyone has equal access to the power that is derived from knowledge.
Public Debate and Literary Entertainment
The Douglass Debating Club, Louisville Western Branch Library
The prominent Douglass Debating Club for high school boys was formed in 1909 under the direction of Western branch librarian, Thomas Fountain Blue. The purpose of the club was to acquaint its members with parliamentary usages, to keep before them the great current questions, and to train them to speak in public. Weekly meetings at the club were held at the Western Colored Branch Library, and a prepared program was rendered. A public debate and prize contest was held annually.
The Douglass Debating Club, Louisville Western Branch Library
The following is an example of the kind of topics debated in the prize contests:
The North American Indian has a Greater Opportunity for Development than the Afro-American.
Western Library Timeline
Professor Albert E. Meyzeek, principal of Central Colored High School, takes a group of African-American students to the "Polytechnic Society Library", the only central library available to Louisvillians.
The Polytechnic Society closes its doors to African-Americans. Meyzeek organizes an African-American Library Committee and argues before the City Library Committee for access by African-Americans.
City Library Committee agrees to support the establishment of a branch library for African-Americans.
September 23: "Western Colored Branch Library" opens in temporary quarters in three rooms at the home of William M. Andrews, 1125 West Chestnut Street (no longer standing).
The first manager was Thomas F. Blue, a Virginia native and graduate of Hampton Institute and the Richmond Theological Seminary.
March 13: Construction begins on the Carnegie-endowed Western Colored Branch Library building at Tenth and Chestnut Streets.
October 28: New Western Colored Branch Library building dedicated for public use. In excess of 400 people attend the ceremony and tour the new facility.
Seven women serve apprenticeships at the Western Colored Branch preparing for library service. Three from Louisville and one each from Houston, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Evansville, Indiana.
Western and Eastern Colored Branches re-organized to create a "Colored" Department under the supervision of Thomas Blue.
February: The Louisville Urban League organizes at the Western Colored Branch Library.
June 26: Thomas F. Blue is the only colored representative at the American Library Association conference in Detroit, Michigan.
October: Louisville FreePublic Library opens a branch library at Central Colored High School, under the supervision of the Western Colored Branch Library.
March: Thomas F. Blue gives the opening address at the first Negro Library Conference at Hampton Institute, Virginia. He was credited as being the "founder" of the conference.
November: New library is dedicated at Fisk University. Also, the occasion of the 2nd Negro Library Conference. American Library Association establishes a special section on Negro Library Service. Thomas F. Blue is elected as chairman of the section.
November 10: Thomas F. Blue dies at age 69. His longtime assistant, Rachel D. Harris succeeds him as head of the Colored Department.
Clarence R. Graham became the first white public library director to chisel off the word 'colored' from a library entry.
Barbara S. Miller named Children's Libraran.
Trustees of Louisville Free Public Library vote to open all branches of the library to all persons.
Western Branch celebrates its 50th anniversary
Albert E. Meyzeek, "Dean of Negro Educators and equal-rights supporters in Kentucky", dies at age 101.
Louisville Historic Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission designates Western Branch as a "landmark".
May 19: Citizen's panel recommends closing many branches due to lack of funds. Western is one slated for closing. Outraged citizens form Western Branch Library Support group and mount strong protest.
March 22: Western Branch Library re-opens after $500,000 renovation with ribbon cutting, reception and a full week of celebratory activities.
September 22: 90th anniversary celebration ends with program and reception at Central High School featuring guest speaker, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, a Louisville-educated journalist, reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and then president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
February 2: A mural is unveiled in meeting room reflecting Western Library’s 90th anniversary theme: “Remembering Yesterday – Planning for Tomorrow.”
February 19: Dr. Benjamin Carson, world famous African American neurosurgeon speaks to Louisville youth at Western Library.
September 15: Musician Prince—through his Love 4 One Another charity—donates $12,000 to Western Library to “assist in reaching all areas of the community.”
September 8: Western Library undergoes a $500,000 facelift to restore and revitalize the 104 year-old building. The highlight of the project is the creation of the African American Archives Reading Room.
December: Western Library receives $70,000 grant as part of the Federal Russell redevelopment project. The funding is used to create a digitization lab, enhancing the capabilities of Western’s African American Archives to digitize and preserve existing materials and make them accessible to more people.
In addition, the grant will increase the capacity of the collection, allowing for the collecting of new materials, as well as recording oral histories that document the redevelopment of the Russell neighborhood.
July 16: A headstone marking the final resting place of Rev. Thomas Fountain Blue and his wife Cornelia was placed in Eastern Cemetery. The location of the Blue's burial spot was unknown for decades before Western Library Branch Manager Natalie Woods and Savannah Darr of The Friends of Eastern Cemetery led efforts to locate it. Funding from the Library Foundation with support from the Frazier History Museum and Bays Brothers Monument were key to placing the marker.
The ceremony was attended by Rev. Blue's descendants.
The Cotter Storytelling Contest
It has been said that one of renowned Louisville educator and poet Joseph Cotter’s “greatest and most memorable gifts to the city of Louisville” was the founding of an annual storytelling contest at the Western Branch in 1913. The ‘storytelling bee,’ as it was often referred, was a way to encourage young children to read and learn through the art of storytelling. A perfect marriage of books, literacy, and libraries, to win the Cotter Storytelling Contest, local children must attend a minimum of eight library storytimes, check out books, go to school regularly, and then be able to recite a story they had heard in a storytime. In addition to cash prizes, winners names were engraved onto the ‘Cotter Cup.’
Children's Story Hour with Mama Yaa
Nana Yaa Asantewaa, an international storyteller, artist, and workshop facilitator, is affectionately known throughout her travels as "Mama Yaa." She is a native of Kentucky where she acquired her love for stories and the arts from her family. Over a span of 40 years, she has shared her artistry in the Virgin Islands, the African countries of Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, and Gabon. She is a past recipient of the distinguished Governor's Community Artist Award and the City of Louisville "Merit Award." Her storytelling has been featured at the prestigious "Gullah Festival" in Beaufort, South Carolina; PANAFEST in Ghana, West Africa; Indiana University Southeast Ogle Center; the National Black Family Conference; and on KET. Nana Yaa Asantewaa is a member of the National Association of Black Storytellers.