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.