Monday, June 3, 2013

Old Building Sleuths: Winston-Salem's Carnegie Library

Winston-Salem's Carnegie Library (Digital Forsyth)
Last spring (2012) N. and I were walking around downtown; we passed a little Catholic chapel that we've walked past hundreds of times.  I'd always wondered what the story of this chapel is.  It's the only Catholic outpost downtown, in an area dominated by Moravian, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches; the Catholic churches are elsewhere in the city.  N. suddenly said, "Mom, I think that used to be the Carnegie Library!"  And I realized he must be right.  Because I'd always thought of the building as a chapel, I'd never noticed that it has the classic lines of the small Carnegie libraries that dot the U.S.  N. had visited the Carnegie library in Two Harbors, MN, the old Carnegie library in Duluth, MN, and had seen pictures of Betsy-Tacy's downtown library, the old Carnegie library in Mankato, MN, so he recognized the form. I knew there had been a Carnegie library in Winston-Salem that preceded our current Central Library, but didn't know where it was located.  I assumed it had been torn down.

I looked for more information about the old library online and learned that it was built in 1906 to designs by Edward L. Tilton, who provided plans executed by local builders (in this case the Fogle Brothers) for many Carnegie libraries throughout the country.  At first the city rejected the proffered $25,000 for a library because "it was not convenient at that time to accept the gift on the terms proposed by Mr. Carnegie."  Carnegie required annual public funding for the operation of the library equal to 10% of the building cost; eventually the sum of $15,000 from Carnegie and $1,500 annual appropriation from the city was agreed upon.  This meant a quite small library was built, and it quickly proved inadequate, as you can see in this 1940 photo.  Eventually sizable private fundraising made it possible to replace the Carnegie library in 1952 (on the site of the former R. J. Reynolds mansion); that library is now also sorely outdated and the means of funding its replacement under dispute.  This does not appear to be a community with a strong history of robust financial support for public libraries.

I'm ashamed to admit that it did not occur to me until I began reading about the history of libraries in Winston-Salem that they were segregated, that the Carnegie library, meant to be free to all, was like many across the South closed to African-Americans.  Eleven years after the Carnegie library opened here, the George Moses Horton Branch for black patrons opened inside a downtown YWCA (here's a cool picture of Langston Hughes reading at the George Moses Horton Branch in 1949).  Two years after the new Central Library opened (presumably for whites), a new building, the East Winston Branch, opened (presumably for blacks).

I want to know more about the segregation and desegregation of my local libraries from the 1950s onwards.  Was segregation enforced at the new Central Library, and for how long?  The History of Public Library Access for in the South by David M. Battles notes that in 1953 "59 cities and towns" in "a survey of 172 libraries, commissions, and library associations encompassing thirteen southern states" gave full main library access to African-American adults but not to children.  29 cities gave limited access to African-American adults through separate entrances and reading rooms.  11 southern library systems with white-only main libraries had one branch that was open to all.  Where did Winston-Salem fall on this spectrum?  Who was involved in bringing about the eventual transition to integrated libraries?

I suggested to N. that we go -- where else? -- to the library to learn more about this history.  As you'll see in my next post, it turned out that he had a different topic of local history he wanted to research.  I haven't yet taken the time to follow up myself, but I want to.  In the meantime, I'm grateful that my son's keen eye for buildings shed light on a complex feature of local history that had been unfamiliar to us.

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