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