When: Tuesday, May 1, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Where: Central Library, East Grand Reading Room
Cost: Free and open to the public
Contact: Melvia Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-226-3728
At 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 1, the Central Library will host a book lecture in which renowned national library historian Wayne A. Wiegand will share the fascinating story of young black heroes whose brave stands led to the integration of public libraries in Jim Crow southern cities such as Birmingham.
Wiegand (pronounced wee-ghund), will sign copies of his new book, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism, answer questions, and participate in a panel discussion featuring some of the protesters whose actions led to the desegregation of the Birmingham Public Library in 1963.
Wiegand’s book lecture is sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation and Patrick Long in memory of Patricia Long, librarian and educator. The event will take place in the Central Library, East Grand Reading Room.
Fifty-five years ago on April 10, 1963, Miles College students, (including retired radio broadcaster Shelly Millender, now 83, and former U.S. federal judge U.W. Clemon), staged a sit-in at the Birmingham Public Library. The library leadership agreed to end segregation in the institution, making it one of the few public facilities in Birmingham that was peacefully desegregated.
Wiegand has a chapter sharing details of the Birmingham sit-in in his book. He calls black activists who desegregated public libraries "Hidden Figures" and celebrates their contributions in his book. The Birmingham desegregation effort began in the summer of 1962 when a black woman named Lola Hendricks entered the Birmingham Public Library to check out a book. White librarians refused to service her and suggested she go to the black library branch in Smithfield.
Within a month she and others filed suit in federal court to desegregate Birmingham Public Libraries and all public buildings. A year later, violence erupted in 1963 when bombs planted by the Ku Klux Klan gained Birmingham the nickname “Bombingham.”
In the midst of the chaos, Birmingham SCLC President Wyatt Walker recruited a group of Miles College students, including Clemon and Millender, to try to integrate the downtown public library.
“Records indicate Shelly Millender was kind of the spokesperson for the group of blacks who entered the library on April 10, 1963,” Wiegand said. “That’s when the local photographer took pictures of the group after they entered the library and were sitting quietly at desks. The librarian must have called the police. The police came, but didn’t bother to arrest them.”
The librarian got a little unnerved and called a special board meeting the next day on April 11, 1963, Wiegand said. Due to concerns about the bad publicity police commissioner Bull Connor was giving Birmingham with his violent response to black civil rights protesters, the Birmingham Public library Board decided to quietly integrate city libraries during the summer of 1963.
On April 10, 1963, Miles College students, including Shelly Millender (pictured), staged a sit-
in at the Birmingham Public Library. The library leadership agreed to end segregation in the
segregated. Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History
“The fact the library became integrated peacefully in the middle of that violent summer is kind of lost on people,” Wiegand said. “It was the sole site of racial conciliation in the middle of a town that was hosing African Americans and turning dogs on them. The media, of course, looking constantly for photos and images that attracted attention, paid no attention to the integration of the Birmingham Public Library. So it kind of got lost in history.”
Wayne Wiegand, a retired professor considered the “Dean of American Library Historians,” is also author of Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library. In 2017 in preparation for the current book tour, Wiegand wrote a guest column in the American Library Journal about what he calls the forgotten black heroes who risked their lives to desegregate public libraries.
His book highlights those who faced violent confrontations and arrests while seeking to desegregate public libraries in the South that had Jim Crow laws that legally created whites-only public venues. One chapter details the Tougaloo Nine, a group of black students from Tougaloo College arrested March 27, 1961, while trying to integrate the nearby Jackson, Mississippi, public library.
Wiegand hopes The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South gives the brave heroes who integrated an important American institution—public libraries—the recognition they deserve.
“What I hope is this can inform a number of people to recognize that public libraries had a role in the civil rights movement and there are certain systemic racist practices that are built into library practice in part because they have not come to grips with their past on the issue of race,” Wiegand said. “We hope this stimulates a discussion in the library profession about what they have done on the issue of race and reflect on that.”
Full Wiegand interview by BPL PR Director Roy Williams
Judge U.W. Clemon Looks Back: Desegregating Birmingham Public Library, interview by BPL Archivist Jim Baggett
LSU Press webpage for The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South