Tuesday, October 27, 2015


In 1920, Catherine B. Allen (later Latimer) became the first African-American librarian hired by NYPL.  She had been one of four black women offered the chance to be hired and was the only one to be chosen. 

Allen was born in Nashville TN in 1896, but her family moved to Brooklyn ca. 1907.  She spent 1908-1910 traveling in Europe with her mother but lived in Brooklyn for most of her life.  Catherine Allen graduated from Brooklyn’s Girls High School in 1916 and then entered Howard University where she studied 1916-1918, the second year of which was devoted to courses on librarianship. 

After Howard, Allen worked as a librarian at Tuskegee Institute 1919-1920 before returning to Brooklyn.  She started her trial as a substitute at the 135th Street Branch in August 1920 and received her regular appointment in November.  The following year Allen married Benton R. Latimer (1894-1985).  Her husband had attended Howard University, served in the US Army in World War I, and later worked as an accountant in the US Post Office.

Catherine Allen Latimer had a strong physical presence although descriptions of her varied.  Langston Hughes met her at the 135th Street Branch shortly after he arrived in Harlem in 1921 and admired her "luscious café au lait" skin.  In fact, both the 1910 and 1930 US censuses listed her race as “White.”  Pura Belpré remembered her first visit to the 135th Street Branch and how Allen “moved like a butterfly through these tables, talking to these teen-agers and handling books.”  Belpré, inspired by Allen’s purpose and presence, wouod soon became the first Puerto Rican librarian at NYPL.  Jean Blackwell (later Hutson) worked with Latimer at the 135th Street Branch in the 1930s and her later comment that Latimer “was literally, as the song goes, five feet high and five feet wide” was at odds with Belpré’s imagery.

Catherine Latimer spent her entire NYPL career at the 135th Street Branch.   In 1924, she and Ernestine Rose (head librarian at 135th Street) created a reference collection of books on the Negro and convened a meeting of community leaders (chaired by Arthur Schomburg) to help build the collection.  The following year, the collection became the Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints with Latimer as the head.  In 1926 Latimer was promoted to Grade 3, making her an equal to the First Assistant in the branch.  Also in 1926 the Library acquired Arthur Schomburg’s outstanding collection of printed and manuscript materials documenting the history and culture of people of African descent, and Latimer set to work incorporating that collection into the holdings of the Negro Division. 

Latimer’s time at NYPL was not always easy.  Although the Library administration was committed to an integrated staff, some white librarians opposed that move.  As the pioneering black librarian, Latimer bore the brunt of the prejudice and hostility of those white colleagues who opposed the Library’s progress in this area.   After a decade at NYPL she wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, “I have labored steadily and never complained until now even in the face of studied neglect and patent injustice.”

In the early 1930s, NYPL worked with the Carnegie Corporation and the American Association for Adult Education to design an experiment in adult education for Negroes living in Harlem and Atlanta.  Ernestine Rose recognized that the Schomburg Collection would be a crucial element of that work.  However, Rose had also come to feel that Latimer lacked the bibliographic and rare book knowledge required to make the collection more useful.  Rose intended to hire Arthur Schomburg as Curator of the collection and to transfer Latimer to the Harlem Adult Education Project as the field worker.  Latimer objected not only to her demotion but also that Rose intended to hire a white library school graduate to catalog Arthur Schomburg’s collection. 

Latimer complained to W.E.B. Du Bois about the situation and he attacked the Library for displacing her.  In the end, Schomburg did come to NYPL as Curator, but Latimer stayed in place as his assistant.  NYPL also promised to seek additional “qualified” Negro librarians for the 135th Street staff.

Despite her struggles at NYPL, Latimer made major contributions to the Library.  Her obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said she was "noted for her assistance to young Negro artists, writers and students."  Although Jean Blackwell Hutson recognized that Latimer was not an expert in either rare books or manuscripts, she praised Latimer as "an energetic and talented cataloger who also delighted in receiving and instructing young visitors."  During her career, Latimer created a calendar of the manuscripts in the Schomburg Collection and compiled a bibliography on black women.

One of Latimer’s major contributions may have come in 1948 when Lawrence Reddick (who had become Curator of the Schomburg Collection in 1938 after Arthur Schomburg’s death) resigned in protest over what he characterized as NYPL’s lack of support for the collection.  W.E.B. Du Bois again intervened and asked for Latimer’s input on a protest letter he was drafting for publication in the New York Times.  More importantly, even though Latimer was on medical leave and would die within a few months, she returned to the branch, gathered the Schomburg staff, and urged them to ignore the tumult and remain focused on their work with the Collection.  The core of the staff did stay and thus kept the Schomburg Collection functioning until Jean Blackwell was appointed Curator in 1949. 

Catherine Allen Latimer died in Brooklyn in September 1948.  She had devoted 20 years as a cataloger and reference librarian with the Schomburg Collection and helped lay the foundation for its becoming an internationally acclaimed research collection.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Cora Muldrow was one of the four African-Americans who were hired as substitutes in 1920 as the New York Public Library began the process of integrating the staff.  Muldrow never received a regular appointment at NYPL but did refer to herself as a former librarian. 

Muldrow was born in Sumter SC.  She attended the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College (now South Carolina State University) in Orangeburg SC, but the records do not indicate that she graduated.  She did teach at the College in 1909-1910 and was later a high school teacher in Salem NC.

Muldrow married John W. Easterling (1886-1958) in 1921 and they lived in Manhattan.  In May 1938 she was murdered in her home by a burglar.  The notice of Cora Easterling’s death in the Amsterdam News indicated that she had been a housewife, the mother of two children, and associated with NYPL’s 135th Street Branch.   

Thursday, October 8, 2015

RUTH A. MOSELEY (ca. 1893-????)

Ruth Moseley was one of the four African-American women who were offered the opportunity to become the first black librarian to work for NYPL, but she was not selected for the position. 

Moseley was born in New York and graduated from the Mt. Kisco High School.  She then studied at the NY Training School for Teachers, probably for 2 years.

She was listed in the 1915 NY State census as a teacher.  Afterwards, she worked as a private secretary and then taught at the Industrial and Agricultural School in Downingtown PA, a school for African-American teenagers.

After not being chosen for a position at NYPL, Moseley worked in the 1920s and 1930s as a music teacher.  In 1932 she wrote W.E.B. Du Bois asking for his advice about social service training programs that were open to Negro girls.  She subsequently worked for the YWCA in White Plains NY and later became Director of the Foundation School of Music in Mount Kisco.

The 1941 obituary in the Amsterdam News for her father George Mosely (as the newspaper spelled his name) referred to her as his adopted daughter, which may indicate that she was the daughter of George’s second wife, Annie.  Moseley had lived with her father George Mosely in Mount Kisco NY until his death. 


Fannie Tarkington was one of the four African-American women who were given trials at the 135th Street Branch in 1920.

I have found only sketchy information about her life.

She was born in Virginia and graduated from the North Carolina State Colored Normal School (now Elizabeth City State University) in 1908.  The commencement program gives her name as Fannie Clarine Janieth Targinton (sic).  She apparently attended Howard University in the 1910s and perhaps worked in Washington D.C. as a social worker.  She moved to New York City in the later 1910s.

The 1940 US Census (the only one in which I found her listed) had her living in Harlem as a lodger and working as an “independent dressmaker”  Three articles in the New York Age from the 1940s mention her participation in activities of the Howard University Club of NY.

As far as I can determine she ever worked as a librarian.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


The early twentieth century saw the start of the Great Migration in which thousands of African-Americans left the violence and discrimination of the South for a better life in the North and West.  New York City was one of the primary destinations for this dramatic population shift.  The City’s black population more than doubled between 1900-1920.  Much of this population settled in Harlem which would come to be regarded as the Capitol of Negro America.  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) is an excellent history of the Great Migration.

Much of the population change in Harlem centered on the neighborhood around the 135th Street Branch and for the next three decades that branch became the focus of the Library’s efforts to serve NYC’s black population.

The Library’s response to this ethnic shift was similar to its earlier response to the influx of Jewish immigrants to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The service ethic of librarianship prompted the Library to devise library services to meet the needs of the new ethnic group.  Part of this approach meant the hiring of group members to help their community adjust to their new urban situation, and the black leadership in Harlem constantly pushed NYPL to hire more black librarians.
NYPL started the integration process by installing Ernestine Rose (a white librarian) as head of 135th Street in June 1920 with a mandate from the library to serve the new community and to hire black librarians.  She was expected to meet the community needs in Harlem just as she had with the Jewish community around the Seward Park Branch on the Lower East Side where she had served as Branch Librarian, 1915-1917.

The few previous studies of African-Americans at NYPL note that integration began in 1920 when Rose selected Catherine Bosley Allen (later Latimer) to be the first black librarian appointed to a regular position at NYPL.  Like other new hires, Allen had started as a substitute and was promoted to Grade 1 only after she passed the entry level exam and her work was judged to be satisfactory.
My research has uncovered the fact that in the summer of 1920 Rose actually offered four black women the opportunity to begin as a substitute at the Branch. Aside from Allen, the other three were Ruth A. Moseley, Cora Muldrow (later Easterling), and Fannie Tarkington.  It should be noted that these four had better educational credentials than most of their white counterparts.  All four had at least some college while only one-third of the 57 white women hired in 1920 had any college.  Catherine Allen was the only one of the four to receive a regular appointment. 

Allen’s hiring was a milestone in breaking the color line at NYPL.  Among the later milestones were the hiring of Augusta Baker as the first black woman to receive a permanent position as a children’s librarian in 1937.  Regina Anderson Andrews became the first African-American to head a neighborhood branch when she was appointed Branch Librarian at the 115th Street Branch in 1938.  And, four years later, after Rose retired, Dorothy Robinson Homer became the first African-American to head the 135th Street Branch.  Jean Blackwell (later Hutson) became the head of the Schomburg Collection in 1948 and built it into one of the world’s greatest collections documenting the African diaspora. 
As important as these milestones were, they obscure the struggles that the African-American women experienced as they sought to be hired and promoted in the Library’s Circulation Department.  Both Baker and Blackwell were initially rebuffed when they applied for jobs at NYPL—both were told that the Library had no available Negro openings.  W.E.B. Du Bois intervened to demand that NYPL promote Andrews to Branch Librarian, and he repeatedly protested the Library’s treatment of Catherine Allen Latimer.  Finally, it was demands from the Harlem community that caused the Library to promote Dorothy Homer as Rose’s replacement at 135th Street, a promotion the Library had resisted.  Despite the prejudice and obstacles, these pioneers succeeded in the NYPL system and shifted the color line for the many African-Americans who would follow them.    

In future posts, I will focus on what is known about the early African-American librarians and their struggles for equality within NYPL. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

REGINA ANDREWS (and a note about Amazon.com)

I just read Ethelene Whitmere’s new biography of Regina Andrews.  She did a good job finding what few personal papers exist (the bulk consist of 22 linear feet at NYPL’s Schomburg Center) and tracking down relatives with memories of Andrews.  The book highlights Andrews’ influence on the Harlem Renaissance.

Note: I have been following Amazon.com’s dispute with Hachette and the protests by authors on behalf of the publisher.  Hachette is a serious publisher, and Amazon seems determined to reduce books to the lowest common denominator.  Although I routinely order books from Amazon, this time I ordered the biography directly from the publisher.  The price was only $2.75 more and it took only 3 days longer for delivery.

For those who support the authors and want to order the book, I recommend doing so directly from the University of Illinois Press.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


The Carnegie Library of Atlanta (CLA) opened a library school in 1905 to train librarians to work in the South.  Over the next two decades, the school sent a number of graduates to NYPL to gain experience.  Although a few stayed, most returned South after a year or two. 

The arrangement was beneficial to both CLA and NYPL.  The Library hired Anne Carroll Moore in 1906 to develop its children’s services and needed a cadre of trained librarians to staff the growing number of children’s rooms in its newly-opened Carnegie buildings.  The CLA graduates (most wanted to be children’s librarians) were able to gain experience in a large, well-run system before returning south to work in that region’s growing number of libraries.

The CLA Library School wanted to make certain its graduates were well-prepared and also wanted to position the school as the place to contact when towns sought to organize or expand a library.  Thus, the school wanted to know how its graduates were progressing and urged the graduates to write letters describing their expectations and experiences.

Fortunately, much of that correspondence survives in the alumni files of the CLA Library School which are housed in the Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University.  I recently spent a day reading through those files.

The graduates’ correspondence reported on both the attractive and unattractive aspects of working and living in New York City.

They found NYPL’s six-day work week to be strenuous.   But, while the hustle and bustle of New York City was also difficult, they enjoyed the opportunity to live independently and to experience the City.  May Smith reported in 1914 that “New York is wonderful and Katharine and I have our ‘day away’ together, and we have had some most enjoyable jaunts.”  Other letters indicates that the ability to attend the theater seemed a particular attraction to the Southerners.  Another wrote “I feel that the past five months … has been as broadening as a trip to Europe.”

The City and the Library also presented situations at odds with the graduates southern backgrounds.  In 1913 Elwyn de Graffenried reported with apparent surprise on her first day working in the Central Children’s Room: “yesterday I found myself answering the questions of a ‘black’ lady with the same desire to please as though she had been white.”

The mutually valuable connections between NYPL and the CLA have not drawn much historical attention but deserve to be explored further.