On a December day in 1956, a husband-and-wife team of interior decorators named Samuel and Josie Murray walked into the public library on East Main Street in Purcellville, Va. They were looking for information on European-style window treatments for work they were doing at the home of Mabel Frances “Mike” Moore, first lady Mamie Eisenhower’s sister.
A new book recounts Virginia’s library integration battles
The librarian told the Murrays they could not check out any books, explaining that the Purcellville library did not offer that privilege to African American residents such as themselves. She referred them to Oscar Emerick, the White man who chaired the library board.
It was Emerick’s belief that letting Black people check out books “would not be in the spirit” of the citizens who had founded the library. He offered to check out a book in his name for the Murrays to use.
This they declined. As Samuel Murray later explained to a reporter, “If I didn’t pay my taxes, they would sell my home. Since I do pay my taxes, I felt I should have the use of the book from the library, which is paid for by my taxes.”
The shameful episode is recounted in “Desegregation in Northern Virginia Libraries,” a new book by Chris Barbuschak and Suzanne S. LaPierre published by the History Press.
The authors are Fairfax County Public Library librarians who specialize in Virginia history. The spark for their book was provided by Sujatha Hampton, an officer with the Fairfax NAACP. After being named to Fairfax’s library board of trustees, Hampton posed a question: Were the county’s libraries ever segregated?
For years, county librarians had been responding to such queries based on answers library officials gave in the 1960s to a college student researching discriminatory library practices in the South. Fairfax County had always responded to her questionnaire by saying libraries had been open to everyone since 1939, the year the county’s free public library system was founded.
Said Barbuschak: “We dug deeper and found out that was not the case.”
What was the case? Across Virginia, it was a dispiriting hodgepodge of outright prohibition, disparate “separate but equal” facilities, heel-dragging integration followed by a general demeanor that signaled Black people weren’t welcome at the library.
In 1960, after Black teenagers in Danville, Va., protested the town’s Whites-only Confederate Memorial Library, officials introduced a library card application that was four pages long and required two character references and two credit references. Library furniture was removed so people of different races couldn’t sit next to one another.
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“Certainly there are parts of the book that don’t make you proud of the library profession,” said LaPierre.
County library systems — as opposed to libraries founded by private patrons or local communities — started to come on the scene in Northern Virginia in the 1930s. Segregation was so entrenched then that libraries could boast about being open to “everyone” without mentioning African Americans. Everyone would have known what “everyone” meant: anyone who was White.
The minutes of an early meeting of the Fairfax library’s board of trustees included a note: “Books allocated and marked for colored readers will not be available to white readers, and vice versa.” In 1941, the bookmobile serving the county was making 46 service stops. Only two of those were in Black neighborhoods.
In many counties, the only libraries Black people could use were in Black high schools. Those facilities were inferior, with fewer books than White libraries. Many of the books were in poor shape.
The book lays out the integration timeline for each county, along with developments in especially racist community libraries in Vienna and Falls Church. It showcases the efforts of Black citizens to stock the libraries and Black activists to address the inequities.
In the case of Loudoun County’s Purcellville library, Samuel Murray approached several attorneys before he found one who would take his case. Lawyer Oliver E. Stone wrote to the library trustees, explaining that a library that accepted public funds had to be open to the public. Town councilman Thomas J. Hatcher proposed a solution: cut off the public funds. Hatcher said he was worried that breaking down one racial barrier could lead to breaking down others.
On March 21, 1957, the library board voted 7-5 in favor of integration. Loudoun’s board of supervisors voted to continue funding the library. Over the course of the controversy, the Murrays endured intimidation, including from the town deputy, who one day led a convoy of 15 cars past their home, horns blaring.
LaPierre said working on the book convinced her of something: “Progress doesn’t happen just because time passes. Progress happens when people take action to make things better.”
Source: Washington Post
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