Monday, July 25, 2011


On this day, 13 years after the end of the Civil War, Mary D. Pretlow was born on a Virginia plantation that had been owned by her family for more than 200 years.   When she died 81 years later, Pretlow was credited with many accomplishments including the desegregation of the public libraries in Norfolk, Virginia.

Pretlow left Virginia in the 1890s and joined the Riverside Branch of the New York Free Circulating Library in 1898.  She became an NYPL staff member when the NYFCL consolidated with NYPL in 1901.  In 1903 she was promoted to Branch Librarian and headed the Bond Street and Hudson Park Branches.  Pretlow went to the St. Louis Public Library in 1910 and for seven years headed two of its branches.

In 1917 Pretlow returned to Virginia as head of the Norfolk Public Library.  Over the next 30 years she supervised the opening of six new branches in the city.  One of them was the Blyden Branch (1921) which was the first municipally-supported library in Virginia to serve African-Americans.  Pretlow continued to promote service to African-American users and by the time of her retirement in 1947 all of the Norfolk Public Library buildings were open to users of all races. 

In 1961 Norfolk re-named one of its branches in honor of Mary Pretlow.

1 comment:

  1. Mary Denson Pretlow was also a writer. Her essay on "What Teachers Read" was published in the NYPL annual report. While it catalogued basic information about educators' reading material, it also contained a charming story about the immigrant experience. She also published an account of the opening of the Hudson Branch Library and the enthusiasm it created. I have found references to New York "Street Stories," but have not been able to locate them.

    After Mary Denson Pretlow returned to Virginia to head the Norfolk Public Library, she asked for a leave of absence to work for the YMCA in Paris during the war. There she wrote an account of her visit to Rheims after the bombing.

    Three years ago the original Mary D. Pretlow branch library was replaced by a new anchor branch which still carries her name.

    The Sargeant Room of the Norfolk Library now houses an archive of material relating to her, including photographs, manuscripts, and copies of her publications.

    Although I was five years old when she died, Mary Denson Pretlow has always been a large part of my life, for I have carried her name with me.