This post contains highlights of material from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions. For more on this digitization project, click here.
In the South, many public library facilities were not desegregated until the 1960s; however, a newsclipping in the North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation Records briefly describes the “historic” decision made in Charlottesville, Virginia, to merge the main library system with the city’s “colored branch” and open Charlottesville’s downtown library to African Americans in 1948.1This event followed a similar desegregation of the public library system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1947.
Before this integration, Charlottesville had maintained separate library services for blacks and whites for 14 years, though the black library had never had a building of its own. Jefferson School was built in 1926 to serve as a high school for blacks in the community; after its completion, Jefferson High School became one of only ten African American high schools in the state of Virginia.2 Beginning in 1934, Jefferson School also housed Charlottesville city’s “Library for Colored Citizens,” an institution dedicated to providing educational resources to the black community at a time when blacks did not have access to the city’s primary library collections, due to the city’s mandate for strictly segregated library facilities.3 This school-library combination was fairly common in African American communities during the era of de jure segregation.4
All this changed in 1948 when the African American library joined the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library system. The “Colored Branch Library at Jefferson School,” as it had been know, was officially closed, and Charlottesville’s main downtown library was opened to blacks for the first time.5 Across the South, once begun, the desegregation of libraries tended to happen more quickly than other public institutions, but public library segregation was not brought to an end without its share of sit-ins and protests. However, on the whole, Southern cities seemed more open to integrating libraries than other public facilities such as buses, swimming pools, and schools. Gradually additional Southern localities began to follow the example set by early adopters, so that in 1953, more than a year before the Brown v. Board decision, 59 Southern cities and counties permitted “full use” of the main public library to African Americans. By 1963 this number had grown to 271.4
The headline “Charlottesville Drops Library Segregation” which appeared in 1948 was a sign of greater progress to come, and this clipping provides us with a brief glimpse into the fascinating history of public library desegregation.
1. “Charlottesville Drops Library Segregation,” Norfolk Journal and Guide
4. Fultz, Michael. “Black Public Libraries in the South in the Era of De Jure Segregation.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(3), Summer 2006.