The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business

Bodies of Knowledge

Bodies of Knowledge

by Megan Summers

Ronald McNair spent most of his life in various states of resistance, struggling against the forms of systemic oppression imposed upon him as a black man growing up in late Jim Crow era South Carolina. Back when he was about eight years old, Ronald visited his local whites-only public library in Lake City, a small town in southern Florence County, desirous of books about math and science. His brother, Carl, later recalled what happened for NPR’s StoryCorps:  "So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him—because they were white folk only—and they were looking at him and saying, you know, 'Who is this Negro?' So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books. Well, this old librarian, she says, 'This library is not for coloreds.' He said, 'Well, I would like to check out these books.' She says, 'Young man, if you don't leave this library right now, I'm gonna call the police.' So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, 'I'll wait.’"


Ronald’s defiance paid off, and after a confrontation with local police, he took the books home. A mere 20 years later, Ronald would be handpicked from a group of physicists by NASA to join the space program. As with many astrophysicists, he also had a talent for music and in 1984 actually brought his saxophone onboard the Challenger and became the first person to play an instrument in space. But little did this future M.I.T. graduate know that with his act of perseverance in that library he was adding to a larger and ongoing American narrative of challenging institutional discriminatory policies against African Americans. So, it’s understandable why public libraries, along with lunch counters and courthouses were often ground zero for demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement.

Understanding the history of public libraries in America means acknowledging the larger forces that shape us and our relationships to each other.  They are woven into the landscapes of towns, villages, counties, parishes, and cities everywhere; they are community centers whose offerings are enormous and constantly evolving. In fact, there are currently more public libraries in America than Starbucks. Every person, whether they realize it or not, passes a library on their way to work or to the park or to the gym. Tax payer dollars hard at work, at least for some.

While some of us may be dismissive of libraries and their centrality to our lives, those without regular access to computers, media, books, social services, and climate-controlled environments utilize libraries to learn, to grow, to feel safe, and, most importantly, for connection to their community. In libraries, people can register to vote, investigate their ancestry, attend lectures, obtain free tickets to local museums, gain technology skills, and raise their children to become avid readers.


Libraries are as old as the American colonies themselves and grew along with the country. In other words, when a new town popped up so did a new library. By the turn of the century, capitalist philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie invested in thousands of library buildings, his Palaces for the People, because he believed in the democratic value of libraries. But alongside transit systems and schools, many public libraries were still segregated deep into the 1960’s. Because no matter how democratic he tried to be, by not pushing for integrated libraries, Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to public life actually perpetuated these discriminatory policies. Instead of pushing for integration, some Carnegie libraries were opened specifically for black communities, thus solidifying the “separate but equal” creed.

But the value of libraries, democratic or not, was made clear to Felton Thomas, Jr. in the mid-70’s when, at 13, there was a buildup of neighborhood gang violence in his Nevada hometown. He sought refuge at the West Las Vegas public library. “I was the oldest of seven. We lived in a poor neighborhood. The gangs from Los Angeles started moving into Las Vegas. I had to make a choice [everyday]. After three months [of getting off the streets and heading to the library instead], the librarian said, 'You should work here.' I became a page, shelving books. One day, the citywide director comes over and says, 'Let me talk to you about becoming a director.' He'd heard from other people that I was a really smart kid who had a great potential.” Thomas realized that potential and is now Director of the Cleveland Public Library in Ohio.


However, while these stories impart powerful lessons about the egalitarian spirit of libraries, they do not convey the complete truth, nor do they account for the more complicated experiences of people like Ronald McNair. And like McNair, African Americans fought back, holding sit-ins to protest their exclusion. Not a year after McNair’s experience in Lake City, eight black students in South Carolina refused to leave the whites-only main library in Greenville until they were arrested. One of those students was Jesse Jackson. While a lawsuit was filed against the library that summer, the mayor and city council voted to close the library instead of desegregating it. “The efforts made by a few Negroes to use the white library will now deprive white and Negro citizens of the benefit of a library,” the mayor told the Greenville News at the time. At a hearing, the district court judge overseeing the case ruled the library had to allow anyone entrance upon reopening. Amidst public pressure, the library reopened within a few weeks as a desegregated space. 

Two years later in Columbus, Georgia, some 40 black students spent the summer hosting read-ins at public libraries throughout the county. Ibrahim Mumin, one of the students, recalled the social climate that summer: “Columbus, Georgia, was completely segregated in 1963—the schools were segregated, the library was segregated, the parks, the playgrounds, restaurants, hotels, etc. As a young student, I thought, ‘We had all these expectations after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954.’ It had been nine years ago and we were still waiting.” Their endeavors, met with arrests and violence, led to the desegregation of the library system there.

Black activists across the country encountered similar degrees of obstruction, often violent, sometimes deadly, as they worked together to desegregate their public spaces. Segregationist leaders targeted libraries because they offer free access to information in all its forms. They were and are places to exchange books, recipes, science, social and political ideas, music, and stories. Policy makers in the Jim Crow era believed that barring African Americans from libraries would strip them of an essential organizing tool: shared educational resources.


Yet having privileged access to information doesn’t come close to the kind of absorbed cultural education kids get from the society in which they are brought up. Charlotte Becker, a white woman who grew up in Roanoke, Virginia during the era of segregation, did not even grasp the implications of this type of exclusion until she was an adult because many white children in segregated communities were raised specifically to perpetuate racist ideologies. “When I was growing up, I knew about segregation, but I didn't know the extent of it. It wasn't until the 90’s that I learned that, before desegregation, the public library in Alexandria did not admit black people (even though their taxes helped support it), and —what is worse —that there was no separate public library for the black population. As a child, I spent many happy and ignorant hours in that library, and I ‘learned’ that because they did not use the library, African-Americans had no interest in intellectual pursuits. Such lessons that are intuited through ignorance, lessons that are not taught but that come through osmosis, can be the most damaging and insidious.”

While these struggles for equality may seem uniquely Southern, they aren’t; Jim Crow racism was alive and well in the North, too, fused into the infrastructures many Southern blacks fled to during the Great Migration. From education to housing to jobs, African Americans in the North were often subjected to more camouflaged iterations of racial discrimination. Libraries in the North also actively discriminated against African Americans. In a 1934 newspaper article from the Baltimore Afro-American, librarian Augusta Baker recalled the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library there telling her they were not interested in hiring black people. The article also mentioned the library’s separate bathrooms for “colored” people, installed after complaints from white library users. 

Historian Cynthia R. Greenlee documented a time in 1945 when New Jersey resident and NAACP member Violet Wallach complained to her local New Jersey chapter about separate, smaller reading rooms for black people at her local library. The NAACP opened an investigation, and library treasurer Harriet Trumaine defended the policy, stating, “We don’t believe in social equality for Negroes. We don’t want our white children associating with them on the same level. The Negroes are a different race. They should be proud of it but keep to themselves.”


The American Library Association (ALA), a Chicago-based nonprofit established to support libraries around the country, has a questionable track record when it comes to advocating for equal access to libraries during this era. After hosting their 1936 annual conference in Richmond, Virginia, where black attendees were forced to be segregated, the ALA passed a rule later that year to never host their conference in a segregated city again. Over the coming decades, however, there was little institutional support granted to activists attempting to desegregate their local libraries.

Public libraries have moved past the days when a child like Ronald McNair could be legally denied access to information based on his skin color. In an attempt to make amends for adherence to Jim Crow policies, the ALA released a resolution at its 2018 Annual Conference in New Orleans on behalf of libraries entitled “An Apology for Segregated Libraries.”  Library systems throughout the country have published similar apologies and resolutions. These concessions are corroded, though, by a lack of widespread praxis to back them up. The ALA “Code of Ethics,” a foundational text for the contemporary library worker, reads more like a public relations tool than a set of applied guidelines when compared to recent annals from library history.

We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

Yet, many libraries lack services and collection materials for people with disabilities and non-native English speakers, as well as staff actively invested in inclusive practices. Today, the majority of public librarians are white, and only a minority are black: 77% as opposed to 7%. Add to this the present statistic that a larger portion of black and Hispanic adults have never visited a public library compared to their white counterparts, and the reality of equitable access differs from the declaration above.

We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.


However, instances of libraries allowing challenged materials to be removed from their shelves are plentiful.  Let’s return to Greenville, South Carolina, where black activists clashed with police and local officials for entry to their public library in the 60’s, and where the library voted in 2012 to remove Alan Moore’s graphic novel Neonomicon from its collection after a mother complained about its content. This was the only copy of the book available in the state at the time. Most of the books banned from libraries go unreported, but trends show those most likely to be challenged deal with racial, sexual, or mental health issues.

We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.

Still, at the same annual conference where the apology for segregated libraries was issued, the ALA “Bill of Rights” was altered to allow hate groups to book public meeting spaces. In a news release, hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan were equated to religious or partisan political groups. Legal concerns were also cited. Only after receiving criticism from libraries and related organizations did the ALA decide to conduct an online poll where council members voted overwhelmingly to rescind the policy. There was no mention of employee rights or welfare, let alone the rights or welfare of library users.

All of this proves that there exists within the stories we tell ourselves and each other, within the chronicles that define us, the power to be honest, as well as the power to deceive. Some library workers are now rewriting the ALA-sanctioned narrative that their spaces are impartial and neutral, looking to the segregated history of libraries as proof otherwise. To bridge the gap in places where funding issues have led to declines in social services, library employees have become social workers, job coaches, nurses, educators, and language teachers. In other words, library employees are serving their communities in profound and meaningful ways.


Others, like Cleveland librarian Stacie Williams, are speaking out directly, framing neutrality as a myth, not a fact: “Neutrality as we use it in libraries leaves people standing at the margins, demanding to be acknowledged as capable and professional, as human, as having histories and lived experiences reflective of the bodies we inhabit. Our bodies, like the bodies of knowledge we provide access to, are not and never were neutral.” Yet, the white-washed history of public libraries persists in many spheres. 

If, at their core, libraries provide free knowledge to their communities, how can they maintain their egalitarian spirit when information and services have become increasingly commodified and politicized? The answer is they can’t, at least not to the degree many of them claim. The other answer is, as a function of a country founded and developed by entrepreneurial white men who supported degrees of subjugation for everyone else, they have never been as democratic as they insist.

This means that, enmeshed in various levels of local, state, and federal government, public libraries often follow a slow, bureaucratic trajectory toward progress mimicked by their allied organizations. Appointed boards, removed from the day-to-day operations of the facilities and people they oversee, make decisions alongside a small number of administrators that impact the external capabilities of their libraries.

In other words, under free market capitalism, based on corporate models of competition and privatization, public libraries have structured themselves as hierarchical businesses to preserve their relevancy in a financially combative society. Pervasive economic disparities create circumstances wherein some cities have more access to services than others. In some cases, libraries exist independently from local government and must rely on alternative funding sources. This also means that, in a country where white supremacist beliefs have been normalized to justify our history of forced enslavement, Native eradication, and xenophobic traditions, libraries have played a role in perpetuating injustices affecting non-white people in America to this day.


In 2010, four of the original eight student protesters from Greenville, South Carolina reunited to commemorate their actions. "In this place of hope, 50 years ago, we found rejection and degradation," Jesse Jackson said. "We persevered—and now America is better off for it.” Jackson chose to define the library as a place of hope. He and his fellow classmates looked beyond their circumstances to fight for a space they believed in: one open to them, where they could conduct research, meet, and engage in discourse together. They refused to accept any other story.

Hope ebbs and flows within the present narrative of public libraries. Their benefits are compromised daily not just by greater political powers, but by how those of us with mobility and privilege choose to nourish our social enterprises through participation. At a time when false narratives creep into every aspect of our lives, we must be accountable to the past, and we must engage in conversations that make us uncomfortable. 

In Illinois, staff at the Skokie Public Library are addressing this head on through the creation of a Civic Lab. Composed of workshops, conversations, lectures, and activities, the Civil Lab is designed to teach civic literacy and community engagement, especially around divisive issues. Amy Koester, Learning Experiences Manager at the library, explained the motivation behind producing such a series in a recent interview. “We have a broad spectrum of diversity. We began hearing conversations among our patrons about Black Lives Matter and SayHerName, and we realized we needed a program where they could talk about the news, share ideas, and learn more about events.”


This substantiates the extent to which libraries can play a major role in a collective journey toward envisioning a future as expansive as the cosmos. “The road between South Carolina and space flight is not a very simple one, nor is it one filled with guarantees,” Ronald McNair explained at the University of South Carolina commencement ceremony in 1984. “The true courage of space flight is not strapping into one’s seat prior to lift off. It is not sitting aboard six million pounds of fire and thunder as one moves away from the planet. But true courage comes in enduring and persevering and the preparation and believing in oneself.”

When eight-year-old Ronald waited with his books at the Lake City Public Library, knowing the police were on their way, the stares of white library users raw and piercing, did he daydream about the solar system to keep himself occupied? Did he envision himself as an adult, floating in a space craft, circling Earth? Did he contemplate the words he would use to detail that day in his life?

McNair was one of seven astronauts who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion and had been working with electronic musician and composer Jean-Michel Jarre with plans to record a saxophone piece during that ill fated mission for Jarre’s album Rendez-Vous. In April of that year, Jarre released the album and dedicated the final track to Ronald. 25 years after his death, a museum preserving Ronald’s life was opened inside the South Carolina library he was once refused access to as a child. While the gesture secures his story, it remains to be seen how the Lake City Public Library will contribute to the stories of its majority black population, a third of whom live in poverty. The more things change…