Study stirs memories of segregated library in Meridian

Photo courtesy of the Meridian-Lauderdale County Public Library

A picture of the former Carnegie Negro Library of Meridian which was located on the corner of 13th Street and 28th Avenue. This library was the first library for African-Americans in Lauderdale County.

The small Meridian building where black children savored a few hours of solitude in a segregated South was last used as a library in 1974 and was torn down in 2008, but came back to life last month through a University of Southern Mississippi assistant professor's academic research. 

The Carnegie Negro Library of Meridian opened in 1913 at 13th Street and 28th Avenue, the first library for African Americans in Lauderdale County.

Matthew Griffis, an assistant professor at USM, included the library in his research of 12 segregated libraries that opened in the South between 1905 and 1920 as part of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's program that funded more than 1,600 public libraries in the United States.

Study stirs memories of segregated library in Meridian

Photo courtesy of the Meridian-Lauderdale County Public Library

Children gathered on the steps of the Carnegie Negro Library of Meridian, February 25, 1956 for "Negro Branch Story Hour."

Griffis' research, titled "The Roots of Community: Segregated Carnegie Libraries as Spaces for Learning and Community-Making in Pre-Civil Rights America, 1900-65," is available at http://aquila.usm.edu/rocoverview.

Cassandra Lewis Sloan said the Carnegie Negro Library was the only library she had access to growing up in Meridian.

“I read at that library for many summers,” Sloan recalled. “My brother and I would walk about eight blocks from our home on 18th Street and 30th Avenue to read every summer. We would go up there in the middle of the day, it was like an outing for us.”

The public library branch was built with the aid of an $8,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, according to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The branch was specifically built for “the colored citizens,” following the request of a group of black Methodists. 

The church donated the site to the city, but the property reverted to St. Paul's United Methodist Church after the branch closed in 1974. The building, once listed on the National Register of Historic places, was demolished on May 28, 2008. 

The “Colored Branch” of the Carnegie Library, as it was then called, was the educational hub of the African-American community during the segregation era, according to Hargie Crenshaw, the chairperson for the Lauderdale County Human Relations Commission, who was instrumental in spearheading the move to preserve the library before it was demolished in 2008.

 “Representative Charles Young, Sr. often spoke highly of how the Carnegie Library in Meridian enhanced his educational opportunities and development,” Crenshaw said. 

The library filled an educational void for children and adults, Crenshaw said.

Sloan said the library was the only library she had access to growing up in Meridian.

“We came from a family that required us to read, so we utilized the library card,” Sloan said. “Story time at the library was one of my favorite things at the library. I can remember a lady, Mrs. Ruby Yarbrough, who would read us stories.”

Sloan said the library was a big part of her life, a fun place to go, and a good place to hang out with friends.

Rellie Mae Williams, of Meridian, recalled going to the library as a child for two different reasons.

“I remember when we went to the library we had to be really quiet like you do in all libraries,” Williams said. “At first I didn’t know how to use a card catalog but soon learned how to use the library for research and enjoyment. But, I also remember the health department giving shots in the basement of the library."

The Lauderdale County Human Relations Commission sought in 2006 to restore the library, with plans to renovate the building and turn it into a center for arts education, social skills and tutorial services, Crenshaw said. 

Some of the $350,000 needed for the restoration was raised, but the effort fell short.

“After a period of time, the city decided it wasn’t structurally sound enough to be salvaged," Crenshaw said. "The money we had raised was given to the Community Foundation of East Mississippi.”

Griffis, a School of Library and Information Science assistant professor, said the building of the library almost didn’t happen.

“When you look at the earlier correspondence between city officials and Andrew Carnegie’s office in New York, it wasn’t until just the year before Meridian received its Carnegie grant in 1904 that there was any mention of providing a separate library for the black community in Meridian,” Griffis said. “As you can imagine, it was met with a lot of resistance from the white leaders and the white community.”

Griffis said according to the correspondence, some leaders were of the opinion that blacks didn’t need a library, and if they were given, one they wouldn’t make use of it.

“Which turned out to be absolutely incorrect,” Griffis said. “Even so they spent $30,000 on the main library downtown, and only $8,000 on the segregated branch, which was much smaller. When it opened in 1913 they had only a very basic book collection, nothing like the main library had.

“Over time the African American community made do with what they were originally given and over decades the library blossomed into a well-used and loved place in the community.”

Griffis emphasized black libraries were very important for African Americans during the days of Jim Crow and segregation, because black citizens were barred from many white establishments.

“In Meridian’s case specifically, I have already noticed that a lot of information has been documented about the former main library downtown, but not a lot out there about the history of the segregated one,” Griffis said. “About its collections, reading programs, or about the librarians.”

The library is described be archivists as a one-story red brick on a raised basement five bays by three. Stone stairs led up to the double-leaf front door with transom. Windows are double-hung and set in flat arches with stone sills; high, short windows inside and back facades. There was a hipped roof with projecting eaves and a chimney at the southwest corner with a corbeled cap.

There is no mention of the name of the architect on the Historic Sites Survey from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, but according to Griffis, the architect's name was listed in the original correspondence as Edward Lippincott Tilton, an American architect, with a practice in New York city, where he was born.

Tilton specialized in the design of libraries, such as the Olean (N.Y.) Public Library and Mount Pleasant Library (Washington, D.C.), two of about a hundred libraries, many of them Carnegie libraries, that he designed in the United States and Canada.

About the research

• Griffis' report is a available online at http://aquila.usm.edu/rocoverview/

• Griffis' project was funded with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C.  

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