Video lecture: ‘The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program’

“Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.”

In the United States, February is an annual observance of Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, which has always had a strong emphasis on teaching and learning more about the history and accomplishments of Black Americans. While I was growing up in Texas, I remember learning primarily about well-known Black Americans, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I know my childhood school experience is not unique. Many critics argue that focusing on just one month does not encourage integration of Black history into education all year round, and that focusing on just a few major Black historical figures leads to oversimplification of their complex histories and experiences.

More and more lately, I’ve been reading about how vital it is to make this a time to research and reflect on more diverse, lesser-known stories and figures of Black American history — and present. Librarians and archivists can have a major role in amplifying diverse Black American voices and experiences. Therefore, when I came across an email in my work inbox about a lecture on library science programs that trained African American librarians, I thought it would be fitting to share this lecture with you all, as well. This also ties into my own personal goals for this site, as I shared in this post in January, to research and highlight more POC librarians. While my primary focus on this site and blog is about portrayals of librarians onscreen, I have also highlighted real-life librarians on this site, too. Art imitates life, right?

Background info

Part of the August Baker Lecture Diversity Series, this lecture, “The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program,” was presented by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson, Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Archives and Records Management at the School of Library and Information Sciences, North Carolina Central University.

Here’s part of the write-up for the program from the Augusta Baker Lecture Series site:

Many people are familiar with Mr. Rosenwald [former president of Sears, Roebuck, Co.] as the founder of the Julius Rosenwald Fund that established more than 5,300 rural schools in 15 Southern states during the period 1917-1938. However, there is another major piece of the puzzle, the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program. That program established more than 10,000 school, college, and public libraries, funded library science programs that trained African American librarians, and made evident the need for libraries to be supported by local governments.

Experience the lecture

Here is the video recording of Dr. Johnson’s lecture, which took place on February 4, 2021:

“Dr. Aisha Johnson – Spring 2021 Baker Diversity Lecture Series” video uploaded by
NicoleTheLibrarian, Standard YouTube License
  • 0-2:12 mins: Welcome message by Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina
  • 2:13-8:29 mins: Personal introduction by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson & introduction to her book, The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program
  • 8:30-13:54 mins: Library development and philanthropy in the Southern U.S. & overview of the Julius Rosenwald Fund (active 1917-1948)
  • 13:55-28:57 mins: Overview of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program (active 1927-1941) and its impact on rural school libraries, African-American college libraries, high school libraries, county libraries, and non-Rosenwald libraries
  • 28:58-33:20 mins: Hidden narratives & impact on HBCU library science programs, standardizing and supporting Black librarianship
  • 33:21-37:07 mins: Goals for further research & call of action
  • 37:08-58:23 mins: Q&A time

Personal takeaways from this lecture

I learned so much watching this lecture and reflecting on what Dr. Johnson researched and shared. Here are some of my personal takeaways and “golden lines” from Dr. Johnson’s lecture:

  • Dr. Johnson’s first career choice was librarianship! I connected to how she framed that “aha” moment of librarianship being a career of impact and service: “That’s not you finding the profession, that’s the profession finding you.”
  • There was a theme throughout the presentation, that if you focus on the under-served, everyone will benefit. As Dr. Johnson said later in the program, “With that library program, [Rosenwald] focused on African Americans, but the entire American South won. The entire region got education, increased literacy, additional educational opportunities.
  • The Julius Rosenwald Fund came about because of the relationship that Rosenwald, who was Jewish, had with Booker T. Washington, a well-respected Black American educator and author.
  • The funding of rural school libraries helped debunk the myth that black children could not read because of their parents.
  • Because Rosenwald would only provide funding to desegregated county libraries, rural Southern counties started desegregating in the 1930s in order to get the funding!
  • The funding for African American college libraries and scholarships for library science programs was the most successful division of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program.
  • I teared up when Dr. Johnson shared that “Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.” That made me think about Black librarian portrayals in films like Men of Honor (2000) and Beautiful Creatures (2013), and how there is so much more cultural significance to these cinematic portrayals. Representation really does matter.
  • I also teared up thinking about how “Rosenwald’s commitment to literacy evolved the profession.” Again, that recurring theme of how everyone benefits when you focus on the under-served and under-represented.
  • The only current library science program in HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is at North Carolina Central University, where Dr. Johnson teaches. And that’s where Dr. Johnson focused her call to action. We need to continue Rosenwald’s work and increase the opportunities in library science for African Americans. Again, everyone in our profession, and the communities we serve, will benefit.

About Augusta Baker and the Augusta Baker Lecture series

I’ve mentioned that Dr. Johnson’s presentation was part of the Augusta Baker Lecture Series (specifically the 2021 Baker Diversity Series), so I also learned more about who Augusta Baker was! Augusta Braxton Baker (1911-1998) was the first African American Coordinator of Children’s Services within the New York Public Library system, and she served as the storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina from 1980 to 1994. You can read more about Baker’s life, librarianship, and legacy here and here, and you can explore her oral histories here.

Dr. Nicole Cooke became the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in 2019, and you can learn more about Dr. Cooke here. The inaugural August Baker Lecture kicked off in April 2020, and you can experience that inaugural lecture, the Diversity Series lectures, and related webinars here on the August Baker Lecture site.

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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