How a black man beat library prejudice in 1920s Tennessee

I recently read an interesting account of how a young black man was able to get books from his local public library during the “Jim Crow” days of the early 20th century, when blacks were barred from many public facilities, including libraries, in most of the southern states.

This was Richard Wright, who was born in 1908 and would become a noted writer and Socialist who did a lot to inspire others in the early Civil Rights movement.

When he was 17 he was living in Memphis, Tennessee. This was the time of the famous “Scopes Trial” that concerned a legal challenge to a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of the Theory of Evolution in schools. One writer who commented on the case was H L Mencken, who in turn came in for criticism from fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee.

Richard Wright read this criticism in a newspaper and decided that if a southern paper disliked what Mencken had written, he must have something worthwhile to say. He therefore determined to read one or more of Mencken’s books, which would almost certainly be held in the local library.

But how could a black man gain access to books held in in a whites-only library? The only way he had been allowed through the library door in the past was when he had been running errands for white people who wanted their books fetched for them. Richard Wright therefore hatched a plan to get the books he wanted, by pretending to be doing the same thing again.

He persuaded a local white man, Mr Falk, to let him use his library card and to forge his signature on book requests. Mr Falk was a bit reluctant at first, and made it clear that Richard was on his own if he got caught, but he had his own reasons for wanting to break the rules. As a Catholic, Mr Falk objected to the bigotry exhibited by southern Protestants – as the Scopes Trial had shown so clearly – and so he felt little loyalty to officialdom. Playing a trick on the public library, at little risk to himself, was not such a bad idea.

As might have been expected, Richard’s first attempt to get books for himself was one that he approached with some trepidation. He waited in a line of white people at the library desk, trying to look “as unbookish as possible” as he later wrote in his autobiography “Black Boy”. When the librarian finally noticed him he handed over Mr Falk’s library card and a forged request for two books by H L Mencken.

At first the librarian was suspicious and asked Richard if he was planning to read the books himself. “Oh no, ma’am”, he replied. “I can’t read”. She turned away to fetch the books, muttering to herself as she did so. When she returned she handed Richard the books he wanted and he then knew that he had beaten the system.

That act of subterfuge and defiance was a major turning point in Richard Wright’s life. It did so in more than one way; not only did it break a barrier for him in personal terms, but it also opened a whole new world of books and learning.

Even so, he would still have to face much prejudice from whites who regarded it as unnatural for black people to gain knowledge from books. He quoted one white man as telling him “You’ll addle your brains if you don’t watch out”; some white people clearly believed that black brains were different from white ones. Richard Wright had to hide his new learning for fear of having this new world snatched away from him again.

This story – and others like it – makes me sad when I look at how many people simply don’t take advantage of the opportunities that libraries open for them, and don’t defend libraries when they come under threat. People could lead much more fulfilling lives if they allowed themselves to learn and have new vistas opened for them. Richard Wright struggled to get to first base, which is where everyone today, whatever their skin color, can start from if they so choose.

Why you need both libraries and the Internet

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Many libraries – not just public libraries but ones that serve schools, other educational bodies, and commercial and industrial companies – have closed in recent years because the people who pay for them have taken the line that “It’s all on the Internet” and so there is no need to keep books on shelves. I regard this as a mistaken view that is based on general ignorance of how the Internet works and how it is accessed.

For one thing, it’s not “all on the Internet”. OK – there is a vast amount of information that can be found there, but until every piece of text that has ever appeared in print (or, indeed, manuscript) has been digitized and made available via an Internet search, it won’t “all be there”.

Another huge problem with the Internet is that there is far more there than most people will find useful. The fact that it is possible with anyone with anything to say to get it published on a website means that millions of people have done precisely that, and a large proportion of what they have produced is (IMHO) complete and utter trash.

Somebody once said that the Internet is like the largest library in the world, but with all the books thrown on the floor. In other words, the information is there but you’ll have a huge problem finding what you want.

You do have tools at hand to help you find things, namely search engines such as Google and Yahoo, but they are by no means the whole answer. When you enter your search terms you are likely to be presented with thousands of hits, but how do you know which are going to be useful and which are not? Some of the pages and sites to which you can link will be pure advertising, some will be put together by people who are presenting a very one-sided view of the topic, and only a small proportion are likely to give you impartial and well-organised information. There are tricks that website owners can use for getting search engines to present their sites on the opening pages, so the user cannot be sure that what they see is reliable information or the result of search engine manipulation.

On the other hand, libraries contain material that has been specially selected by trained and experienced professionals, and presented in ways that make it easy to find. A book – to take the average library’s most obvious resource – does not get published unless it has been through a rigorous process of checking, organisation and approval. It is a package of information that is designed to make access as easy as possible. You can flip through the pages in a matter of seconds to get a feel for whether it is likely to be what you are looking for, and it is probably indexed in a way that allows you to get to exactly the right place with little delay.

It would be wrong (and silly) of me to say that a book is always the answer and a web page is never so. However, what I am saying is that they both have their advantages and there is room for both in the world of information gathering. The great thing about public libraries is that they have both – there are books on shelves to browse and computers with Internet access for web surfing and finding out the latest information.

So why make do with only half the picture? Go to the library and get the lot!