Thursday, January 28, 2010

Library and social history found at the book sale

Going through a few boxes of treasure (books) purchased at the Houston Public Library book sale last year (and then set aside), I recently came across a little booklet about the state of Texas. And I began to learn (or remember from history) that, for several decades, folks in Houston could not all go to the same library to look at this book. Skin color determined which buildings they could enter, and, ultimately, which books they could read.

Ironically, this is the least significant book I found at that sale, in terms of value or content, but it may turn out to be the most interesting in terms of the historical window it opened.

Tell Me About Texas is a booklet published by the Press of Van Boeckmann-Jones in Austin for the Convention and Publicity Bureau of the Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1935. It reads like a little factoid piece on Texas history, geography, and culture. There are even a few colored plates depicting the state bird (Mockingbird) and state flower (bluebonnet).

But there is also another colored item--the library stamp on the top of the front cover that states Houston Public Library Colored Branch. A fading relic from the segregated past that really makes you pause and consider that, as long ago and incredulous as it might seem to us today, it really wasn't that long ago that such segregation was not only tolerated, but perpetuated by conventions such as separate library facilities for black and white citizens.


This cover seemed to be asking, Tell me about... the Colored Branch, the word Texas itself segregated from the message of the rest of the cover. So I bought it for eight bits and put it in a box to research at home.

The authority on the history of racially segregated public libraries is Cheryl Knott Malone, an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Studies. Most of what I found is from her exhaustive research and writing here and here.

The Colored Branch has its roots in the Houston Carnegie Library, completed in 1904 with a $50,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie. African American citizens were denied access to the new library, so in 1909 they organized their own under very modest circumstances in a local high school and later secured a Carnegie grant for construction of a new building. By 1913, the Colored Carnegie Library opened its doors and operated independently of its whites-only counterpart. That changed in 1921 when the Houston Public Library system was formed and brought the Colored Carnegie Library into their system as the Colored Branch.

That is the branch that had the booklet with the faded Colored Branch stamp, which I bought at the sale last year. That segregation would begin to unravel in 1953 with a shift in city policy, but it was a slow development. The Colored Branch continued operating through desegregation and finally, in 1961, the plug was unceremoniously pulled on that branch, closing that chapter of the city's segregated library history.

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