Travis Armstrong, Ed.D
During the institution of slavery, the methods used to prevent the dissemination of information to the enslaved were indispensable to the maintenance of this tradition. The architects of this brutal system believed it was necessary to “close every avenue by which light may enter their [the slave] minds.” As described by Carter G. Woodson, one of the leading proponents of African American history, it was not uncommon for African Americans to conceal books, newspapers, financial receipts, and other correspondence from the sight of their overseers, masters, or from whites , in general. African Americans fought the system of learning deprivation despite the threat of physical violence.
Book bans are not new. We might link the current ban on access to books to earlier laws which prohibited Black literacy in the nineteenth century. Despite these bans, African Americans valued the importance of knowledge. In 1827, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper. Free Blacks organized a number of newspapers during the first half of the 19th century. Free African Americans also participated in literary activities and formed their own libraries. Beginning in 1828, more than 50 African American literary and library societies were founded in Northern cities. Among the most prominent was the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, co-founded in 1833 by Robert Purvis, the son of a white cotton broker and a free-born African American woman. Despite segregation and discrimination, the period prior to the Civil War was the most pivotal era for the development and expansion of African American literary traditions. African Americans built printing presses, reading rooms, bibliographies, and libraries.
Despite the end of slavery in 1865, the protections of citizenship were short-lived. Plessy v. Ferguson established the principle of separate but equal in 1896. African American libraries continued their tradition of self-reliance and community support. Little support was expected or received from the state. Resources that were distributed were few and often went in a greater share to white instutions. Blacks challenged this unequal system. Mollie H. Huston, the first African American librarian in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the founder of Raleigh’s Richard B. Harrison Public Library, the first library in Raleigh to serve African Americans, challenged the segregationist practices of the Charlotte, North Carolina public library system. In 1935 she urged the white mayor to form a biracial committee to establish a “Negro Library” which eventually held 3,310 volumes and an annual circulation of almost 15,000. Her efforts led to the creation of the Negro Library Association of North Carolina.
Between 1920-1932, there were approximately 210 professional Black librarians. Over a fourteen-year period, the Hampton Institute Library School trained 183 Black librarians. The Negro Teacher-Librarian Training Program (NTLTP), which operated from 1936-1939 significantly increased the number of formally trained African American school librarians in the South. It offered a 12 credit-hour summer library training program for Black teacher-librarians in segregated Black public schools which mirrored educational programs in white institutions. Hosted on four Historically Black College and University (HBCU) campuses (Clark/Atlanta, Fisk, Hampton, and Prairie View), the program is credited with training more than 200 African American teacher-librarians from 16 southern states. This program supplemented the Hampton Institute Library School which was the only library school program whose mission was to educate African American librarians.
Little changed for the prospects of African Americans and librarianship as the walls of segregation tumbled. African Americans in the field documented numerous allegations of discrimination. against African Americans within the library community. Some of these practices included denial of employee benefits, retaliation, freezing out of key meetings and social functions, to name a few. Committees, task forces, individuals, and many organizations addressed shortages and developed diversity initiatives to tackle issues of job satisfaction, discrimination, and racism. Betty Blackman, the first African American dean within the California state University system, attacked racist policies of the American Library Association. James Crayton sued the Los Angeles County Public Library for its dismal record of promoting African Americans to middle management and administrative positions. Additionally, to combat the shortage of African American librarians due to discrimination and lack of opportunity, many organizations developed recruitment, retention, and advancement initiatives at all library levels to increase numbers.
The efforts of past individuals and organizations to increase African American librarianship notwithstanding, today the number of African American librarians is astronomically lower than their white counterparts.. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 2021, only seven percent of librarians identified as African American compared to Whites at 87 percent .Additionally, gender equality within the Library Science community is lacking. African American women make up only eight percent of participants in Master of Librarian Sciences (MLS) programs in 2018-2019. But African American librarians are challenging the status quo. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association is building pipelines and networks of African American librarians.
Social media groups such as Black Librarians, a social medi group, operates an Instagram account with more than 33,000 followers to highlight the work of African American librarians. This work involves mentor/mentee relationships and how to deal with microagressions. Black librairans have also made great strides. Dr. Carla Hayden, the first woman and African American to lead the Library of Congress, has defied the odds. Her career has been characterized by a long history of leadership in public libraries beginning at the Chicago Public Library in 1973. Similarly, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the newly appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian, the first African American, and the first historian to hold the post, is the best example of African Americans’ dedication to education and curation of the African American experience. Under Bunch’s leadership, the National Museum of African American History opened with great fanfare to tell the story of rich and complex history of African Americans. Our world is a much better place because of trailblazers like Mrs. Hayden and Mr. Bunch,. Their achievements, however, would not have been possible without the many unsung African American librarians who serviced our communities without adequate funding and under the threat of assault to their personal safety. Today, opponents of free speech will find are are finding that African Americans’ innate sense of protecting our institutions will not be tolerated. Books have been the lifeblood of our resistance to oppression and Black librarians are the guardians.
Dr. Travis Armstrong is the community outreach coordinator of the Foot Soldier’s Journey organization led by his cousin, Thomas Armstrong, who is an original Mississippi Freedom Rider of 1961. The organization’s purpose is to provide civic education and engagement to educate organizations about the lessons of the civil rights movement era and to inform on the contemporary civil rights issues of today. Dr. Armstrong also serves on several committees including the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Prentiss (MS) Normal and Industrial Institute Partnership Team. Armstrong retired from the United States Air Force in 2014 after 23 years of active duty service and served in Operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and in Europe, Asia, and the continental United States. He specialized in combat troop deployment services and designed, produced, and implemented instructional development programs for the Air Force Human Resources career field, serving over 44,000 personnel.
Previously Published on Historian Speaks