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.

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