Speech by E.J. Josey

Dr. E. J. Josey, Professor Emeritus, School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and Past President of the American Library Association, delivered a speech at the National Sankofa Council on Educating Black Children Conference on April 5, 1998 in Merrillville, Indiana.

Dr. Josey, an honorary member of CLBC-GLA, has graciously granted permission to post selections of his speech on our website.


In revisiting our historical past, we find ourselves running into a few grim reminders. We come face-to-face with two historical conditions of black people that cannot be overlooked. The first reminder is that unlike most Americans, we were brought to these American shores against our will. Having been brought to the so-called land of freedom, we were denied the fruits of freedom. In spite of this fact, there is a yearning and a great desire to be free. We were recently reminded of this fact by a distinguished African American historian who wrote:

In an abolitionist observance of the 4th of July in 1860 at Framingham, Massachusetts under the auspices of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, a young black orator advanced a novel reason for the crackling of the liberty bell the first time it had rung in Philadelphia. The bell cracked, said H. Ford Douglas, the featured speaker of the occasion, because it simply did not have enough brass to tell the lie conveyed by its inscription “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

More than a personal opinion, this quip by Mr. Douglas revealed an attitude that was common among antebellum blacks. They were less likely then others to be carried away by the patriotic, spread-eagle “spirit of 76,” with its glorification of the Declaration of Independence, and its annual flag-waving, band playing, fireworks celebration of that document’s natal day, July 4th. White Americans might regard the Declaration of independence as a beacon light. To a black spokesman like H. Ford Douglas, however, it was a flickering torch at best, its flame fitful.

As we reflect on H. Ford Douglas’ words 138 years later, we would agree that our fellow white Americans have found it easy to espouse some of the noblest rhetoric and human ideals while continuing to deny the integrity and the dignity of black Americans.

Now let us turn to the second condition: the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, wrote into American jurisprudence the doctrine of racial separation. State laws in 18 states and the District of Columbia required “separate but equal accommodations for black Americans.” Separate my friends, was always separate, but never equal. The Fourteenth Amendment, which had been looked upon as written to protect the rights of black Americans, was now interpreted in such a manner as to dehumanize them. Justice Harlan in his dissent was prophetic: “laws requiring segregation foster ideas of cast and inferiority and lead to additional aggression against the rights of negroes.” From 1896 to 1954, a period of 42 years, as Justice Harlan predicted, there was aggression against the rights of black Americans as citizens.

Long before the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, black people were cognizant that life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were words not appropriate to describe their hopes and dreams for America. It was Barbara Jordan, a member of the House of Representatives judiciary committee, who said:

“We the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that quote. “We the people.” I felt somehow for many years that the founding fathers left me out of the Constitution, but by amendments I am now here. I have finally been included in we the people.”

* * * * *

Frederick Douglass, one of the great minds of the 19th century, continued to speak out against the system as he struggled for support from free blacks who seemed more interested at the time in squandering their meager funds on the masquerades of free masonry than upon helping their brothers in slavery to seek freedom and equality.

* * * * *

My friends, we can point to many others who fought against the idea of slavery of the body and of slavery of the mind for example, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Charles H. Houston, Walter White, Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Thurgood Marshall. There are many others who received less national prominence. For example, Malcolm X, but whose great contributions deserves great credit.

Ladies and gentleman, I should pause here to remind you that equality is not something that may be had by degrees. One is either equal or one is not equal. There are no in-betweens. We as a people may progress towards equality, and we may sometimes mistakenly think that we have reached our goal. But only when every vestige of discrimination and racism is removed not only from the physical aspect of life in America, but also from the hearts and minds of people, then, and only then, can we claim to be equal. So my friends, within that framework, we also have a job to do among our own people who oftentimes have been so brainwashed that the concepts of real equality may be elusive and are hazy.

Black librarians have played an important role in the tight for equality throughout the history of the United States. In 1787, more than 200 years ago, when the New York African free schools were established, one of the objectives was “to provide means for educating children of color of all classes.” Books, as rare and as expensive as they were at one time, were made available so that students could develop concepts of equality while learning the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1795, Amos Fortune, a free black man, became one of the founders of the Jaffey Public Library in New Hampshire, because he knew that knowledge was power.

Books were considered valuable property in the early days of the United States. It was necessary to select prudently and wisely those titles to be ordered, for most of the books at the time were procured from European publishers. The private library of such a person as Thomas Jefferson, as emphasized by Edward G. Holley in his writings, reflected the nature of book collecting by early Americans despite his frugality.

Black people were able to gather impressive collections to provide learning for those young blacks and older blacks seeking to improve their minds. It was Joseph Wilson, who reported in 1841, that:

“Among the earliest established of libraries stand first the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons. This library was instituted January 1, 1833. Its objective or goal was a collection of useful works and materials of every description for the benefit of its members, who might successfully apply without relatively any cost for that mental good which they could not readily attain elsewhere.”

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A most notable indication of the perseverance of black people comes out of the history of the State of Missouri. A man by the name of John Berry Meachum, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1789 eventually became a successful carpenter, and cabinetmaker in St. Louis. At the time the laws of the State of Missouri forbade the teaching of black children, either slave or free; Meachum devised a unique plan for accomplishing his purpose. He built a river boat and fitted it with classrooms, and anchored it in the middle of the Mississippi away from the state of Missouri’s jurisdiction. Each morning there were small boats that were leaving the docks carrying the young black children to school where they could not be touched by State law, because they would not be on the State land. Meachum furnished a library on board this riverboat so that the children could read during their spare time. He also operated another boat which carried temperance literature and other literature to boats on the Mississippi. As a pioneer, abolitionist, and preacher, Mr. Meachum made his mark by contributing to the future of black people in Missouri. Recently, a branch of the St. Louis Public Library was named for this noble personality.

Dr. William E.B. Du Bois reported from Atlanta University in his writings the early part of this century that there was a “natural desire for books, which led to a movement for Negro libraries.” The Sojourner Truth Club Library of Montgomery Alabama was organized in the late 19th century. It appealed through the churches and to citizens in general for funds for the purchase of books.

* * * * *

“There is a colored library in Dallas, Texas and one has just been incorporated in Jacksonville, Florida.” Dr. Du Bois also reported at the turn of the century that the existence of the Flanner Guild of Indianapolis, Indiana, containing a reading room with a variety of games and literature for children… and each evening from 7 to 9:00 the room was crowded with many young people and adults. The question of where the first publicly supported library for black people originated has not really been settled. We know that Louisville opened a special branch on September 23, 1905, and a black man by the name of Thomas Fountain Blue was the librarian.

* * * * *

Although what really matters is that there was a great interest on the part of the African American population throughout the country for books and other reading materials and these materials should be made available to them. It is interesting to note the various responses to the spontaneous community demand being made at the time.

Ladies and gentlemen, black people have had a distinguished history in American librarianship as evidenced by the fact that, one year before the founding of the American Library Association in 1876, a black educator, Richard T. Greener, the first black to graduate from Harvard University, served as the University Librarian at the University of South Carolina. You may wish to raise a question, how could this be? This was in 1875, but you must also remember that this was during the Reconstruction period and blacks played a very significant role in the Reconstruction period, although many of our history books do not provide adequate information.

Black people soon became interested in becoming a part of the profession of librarianship quite early, the first black person to graduate from a library school in our country was a man by the name of Edward Christopher Williams in 1900. Mr. Williams graduated from the New York State Library School at Albany that was directed by Melville Dewey. The next known black graduate was a woman by the name of Florence Powell who graduated from the Carnegie School in Pittsburgh, which is the forerunner of the University of Pittsburgh Library School. In 1926, Hampton Institute, which is now known as Hampton University, graduated three black professionals Yes, black people have had a long history in librarianship.

With so few black librarians located in visible positions, it is not surprising that those who were attracted to this profession before 1950 were so few in numbers. Prior to that time, the bulk of black professionals were educated in Hampton, at Hampton Institute, in Atlanta at Atlanta University, and in Durham at North Carolina Central University. The Supreme Court decision of 1954, however, opened a new outlook for black young people, who could now see librarianship among the many career options that were open for them. By the 1970′s, the doors were open so widely that many of us began to believe that we had arrived and achieved. It took only a few experiences, however, to prove that increased opportunity did not mean that the long fight for freedom was over. Although young black librarians were placed in positions of seeming importance, many found the open acceptance of no real consequence. It was only then that our good sense revealed to us that as long as the least of these are denied freedom and opportunity no one is free.

Are we really at a point where we can see the promised land? Because we have seen three black persons elected president of the American Library Association (ALA)? Does this mean we have the long sought equality that we have been seeking? My friends, it took 118 years for three African Americans to become president of ALA. Does it mean having four black directors of prestigious ARL libraries (Association of Research Libraries), and five black deans of five major library schools mean that we have arrived? Please be reminded that there are only three blacks, who direct major public libraries. Does the search by many libraries for black librarians, sometimes under the guise of “equal opportunity employee,” mean that we no longer need to concern ourselves with the strive toward equality of opportunity in librarianship?

First, we as a group must move to a point of accepting the responsibilities that go along with the leadership opportunities that we have. As librarians that means that we must be so interested in the problems of our inner cities and our communities that we must develop and get behind programs that will mobilize the educational opportunities offered through libraries to those who can benefit most from them.

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In order that we understand the roots from which we came, we must make sure that our library collections represent diversity and that there are books by and about black people on the shelves.

Secondly, we must keep before us the roots from which we came. Those students who participated in the sit-ins in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia in the 1960s were making it possible for this generation to reap the promises that our country has been making for two centuries. When Mar tin Luther King cried ‘Let Freedom Ring,” he was talking about all of us, not freedom for the few of us. My friends, we forget too quickly the price that others have paid for our progress.

Thirdly, we must continue to support those organizations, which have been and still are in the vanguard of the stride towards freedom. We must support the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the ACLU, and other civil rights organization.

Fourthly, there must be an emerging interest by black librarians arid the black users of libraries to insist on innovation. Black librarians must continue to have an ongoing interest, because we are often closer to the problems, we should be able to find solutions, which can be meaningful and productive.

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The potential leader of tomorrow may not have a computer at home and your library is the educational agency which introduces him to this new device. There are so many of our young people who need to be influenced by librarians and be influenced by libraries. As we get a foothold in the management and decision making hierarchies of libraries, let us learn to use our influence for the greater good of our citizens, and particularly those who need our concerns the most, the poor and downtrodden.

* * * * *

The fifth thing that we must do in the African American communities all across this land is to strengthen library services to children. Our children are our future. Earlier I reminded you about our historical past in which we black people as slaves were denied the opportunity to learn, to read officially while many people, including Mr. Meachum that I described, found a way to teach black children to read. Now, in this land, everybody has an opportunity to learn to read but unfortunately parents, who oftentimes work two jobs or both parents working, when they come home they don’t have the opportunity to work with their children. This is where the public library comes in and where the public library can be more than a place to serve latchkey children to sit in the library to play games, but it is a place for them to read and use the computer to enhance their educational skills.

While we are very pleased that Bill Gates and his wife and the Gates Foundation is providing 400 million dollars in cash and software support to extend internet access at pubic libraries serving low-income communities, we must not forget that literacy in itself is still very important. Our children must be taught to read. They will not be able to use the internet or the computer without knowledge of how to read. While we want our children to know and understand the home page and the web site, we also know that home page and web site designers are librarians who can think backwards and in circles. We also know that digitized cataloging techniques are helping to create a user friendly internet. But we must continue to insist on literacy. Our children and young people must know how to read.

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We will always have books in libraries. I foresee books and electronic sources existing side by side. In short, I want to leave with you the message today that literacy is more important than ever. Your children must know how to read if they are going to live and work in cyberspace. Some of our public libraries around the country are working hard at this. I was so pleased to see the kinds of children’s program that the Gary Public Library has initiated. I salute the Children’s librarians, the Trustees and Mr. Lee for the fine work that they are doing in this particular area.

Finally, there must emerge from our new breed of librarians a desire to tell the world about what we are doing. We need to write about our history. From my travels, I know that some of the programs that have been developed in our universities, our colleges, schools and public libraries are innovative and creative and should be examined to determine if they should be replicated and especially worthy of passing on to those who are less imaginative.

The year 2000 is just two years away, and it is time enough to erase the deficiencies which continue to exist in our libraries and our profession in 1998. Out of the struggle to bring pride and meaning to every individual black librarian, we can share the leadership with other black educators to order a new world, one which no longer judges a man or woman by the color of his or her skin but by the kind of character that he or she exhibits, as well as his or her concern for all humanity. This is the major goal we seek. Equality for all.

Finally, I wish to share a poem from Langston Hughes, who was one of America’s great poets and who shares with all of humanity his vision for the future.

I DREAM A WORLD / Langston Hughes

I dream a world where man
No other will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn,
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head,
And joy, like a pearl
Attend the needs of all mankind.
Of such I dream –
Our world.

Posted with the permission of Dr. E. J. Josey

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