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.