Libraries in the South

December 9, 2010 in 1940s-1950s, Social history

In today’s age of technology and abundant resources, we take many things for granted. Most things are right at the tips of our fingers, only needing a click of a mouse to find whatever it is we would like to know more about. Libraries like the New York Public Library, for example, have even begun to publish books on the Internet for more accessibility to a larger number of readers. With that being said, it is hard to imagine a time when people did not have this abundance of knowledge so readily at hand. It is even harder to think of a time when not all races were afforded the opportunity to, simply, set foot in a public library.

Historic Carnegie Library of Hopkinsville

Hopkinsville Carnegie Library (currently the Carnegie Library of Kentucky Architecture)

This was the reality for Hopkinsville, KY natives like Odessa Chestine, who in her interview for the Oral History Project on the Civil Rights Movement by the Kentucky Historical Society explains how she was not allowed in the public Carnegie library. Instead, her father, who she describes as an “avid reader”, would have to buy the books they wanted to read.

Carnegie libraries in the South were yet another segregated place. In some places funds were established to build a separate library for black patrons, but in places where they did not black citizens were faced with the same reality as Mrs. Chestine. In Houston, Texas, African-American educators who had been turned away from the segregated public library worked to get a Carnegie grant to fund the construction of a new library, referred to as the “Colored Carnegie Library.” For most library patrons in Southern Black communities,  libraries would only be a few rooms in someone’s home, unlike the large, beautiful Carnegie libraries open to whites only.

Louisville Free Public Library upon completion in 1907

Louisville Free Public Library built in 1907, whites only

Louisville set the tone for Kentucky in 1941, when a sit in occurred to protest the segregated library. It then took another eight years (1949) for the main branch of the library to become open to all races.


“Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Library Legacy.” Celsus: A Library Architecture Resource. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <>.

“Louisville’s 1961 Civil Rights Demonstrations: The Interviews” Anne Braden Institute forSocial Justice Research, University of Louisville. Audio and visual clips, transcripts. 09 Dec. 2010. <>.

Malone, Cheryl Knott. “Autonomy and Accommodation: Houston’s Colored Carnegie Library, 1907-1922,” Libraries & Culture 34 (Spring 1999). Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <>.

“Odessa Chestine.” Interview by Betsy Brinson. Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. The Kentucky Historical Society. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <>.

4 responses to Libraries in the South

  1. Great blog! I’m an avid online reader and just can’t imagine the existence of a segregated Internet! Anyway, on a more factual note, you mention the 1941 protest of the segregated library and then open to all by 1949. This precariously correlates to the 1948-1950 Midway Woman’s Club Build a Better Community project that created a library for Midway’s African American School. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This reminds me of how during the time of slavery it was illegal to teach a slave how to read. Education has aways been a key to success that white racist have wanted to keep on lock down.

  3. Sitting here in the EKU library it is hard to imagine that at one time whites and blacks could not sit in the same room. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to have segregated classrooms and public facilities. I would hope that we as a society will continue to evolve and mature were all people are treated as one. It’s a shame that we must to have a law or policy written in a book to ensure equality.

  4. Hey, this is obviously still horrible in that it’s segregated, but there was an active and robust “colored” library in Louisville that opened in 1905 due to the black community organizing and creating one for themselves! And it’s still in operation today as part of the LFPL system.

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