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Integrating Carnegie Library

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 9, 1962, a group of black teenagers from Albany seen in this video, enter the Carnegie Library, Albany’s library for whites, and attempt to apply for library cards. The group tells the librarian, Mrs. Virginia Riley, that they are not currently enrolled in school and that they need to check out certain books so as not to fall behind in their studies. (In a later interview with The Albany Herald, Albany’s mainstream newspaper, Mrs. Riley said that she assumed that the members of the group were students who had recently been suspended from Albany State College due to their involvement in the demonstrations in the Albany Movement.)

One young man asked Mrs. Riley to find a book about nuclear physics, and after finding books on the subject, the librarian told the young man that she could send the books over to the black library in Walton County, Georgia, since he would not be able to check the books out from the white library. The young man declined the offer since Mrs. Riley’s offer meant that he was not allowed to have a library card with the Carnegie Library.

Later that afternoon, a second group of young blacks came to the Carnegie Library. Some members of the group went into a reading room while others went into a reference room that was crowded with white students. After the librarians informed the group that they could go before the Carnegie Library’s board of trustees and protest the segregation policy, the group left without any incident.

On the next afternoon, January 10, a group of eight young blacks came to the Carnegie Library. According to The Albany Herald, the group reportedly sat in the reading rooms, opened card catalogs, and drank from the water fountains in the library. The group also attempted to apply for library cards and the librarians told them they could not register for cards. The librarians told the group that they could go to the Monroe library for blacks, and they asked the group to leave.

After two requests to leave from the librarians, the group finally left on the third request. Mrs. Riley, the librarian at Carnegie, also said that on that same day, the library received a telegram that was directed to the board of trustees, which contained the signatures of fourteen people and the message that the fourteen individuals had been “denied the right of education.” Rather than extend library privileges to African Americans, the Albany City Commission closed Carnegie Library in 1962.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would mandate the desegregation of public forms of transportation and public facilities like the Carnegie Library, and it would extend protection to African Americans and other minorities from discrimination in the workplace.  The students' nonviolent sit-ins at the Carnegie Library, which recalled the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins two years earlier, demonstrated their awareness of the link between literacy and the social and economic advancement of African Americans.  Their willingness to face arrest in order to use a public facility made a powerful statement about the passion of their convictions and the lengths that an oppressed people will go to in order to be free.  

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Discussion Questions

1. In his autobiography Black Boy (1957), Richard Wright persuades a white friend to write a duplicitous note for him so that he can check out books from the Memphis, Tennessee, public library. His friend writes--"Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H.L. Mencken?"--as if Wright is not checking out the books for himself. Why would Wright want so badly to read that he would be willing to lie in order to do it?

2. What did having access to a decent education mean to the Civil Rights Movement activists? What does a good education mean to you?

Take it to the Streets!

Phillis Wheatley was the first black person in the United States to publish a collection of verse: Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (1773). Study the engraving of Phillis Wheatley in her book. How would      eighteenth-century white readers have responded to her image? Write a story from the perspective of Phillis Wheatley of what it meant to be a slave who could read and write.

Writer: Courtney Thomas 
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Professor Barbara McCaskill, Deborah Stanley, Diane Trap
Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill  
Web Site Designer: William Weems 

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