Review: Freedom Libraries

Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South by Mike Selby

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019. Hardcover, 208 pages.Cover: Freedom Libraries

Set amidst the turmoil of the Civil Rights era, concerned individuals of all ethnic groups found a way to bring literacy and education to African Americans in the South.  In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to take books southward and create libraries for African Americans who could not us the segregated, “Whites-Only” libraries.  And this is in an era when the libraries, despite federal law, were desegregated on paper but found other ways to keep non-whites out. This led to the Freedom Libraries movement over that summer.  Northerners and other supporters donated millions of books to establish the libraries. Volunteers came from college campuses nationwide plus from other supporters. While many were African American, Whites and Latinos also joined the effort.

Upon arrival in the south, the method of implementing the libraries differed by each states uniqueness.  However, there were commonalities. Often, it was hard to find a location to set up a library in as people feared for their property.  Both the volunteers and the library users were harassed. The former were often attacked just going out in public.  Those who were white were often accused of sleeping with their African-American counterparts.  The volunteers were also often arrested for the slightest perceived violation or for outright fabricated reasons in an effort to stop the libraries.  The libraries themselves were also targets as many were set on fire or bombed, often hurting users or volunteers in the process. On the bright side, all implemented literacy programs and did their best to register voters.  This helped those of all ages learn to read and enjoy reading. The programs for young children eventually evolved into Headstart programs.  And this touch of literacy lead to a desire for more education and that lead to more desire for fully equal rights, not just equality on paper.

This book opened a whole new world of the history of libraries to me.  Even in my history of libraries class, the Freedom Libraries were not covered.  Previously, I knew libraries were fewer and farther between in the south and were affected by segregation, but this is the story of how libraries finally affected the populations that needed them the most in a hard-to-reach area, with the culture being the largest barrier.  And it shows that the Freedom Libraries went far beyond the call of duty for most libraries of their era by hosting literacy programs and handling voter registration, something I do not remember public libraries offering much of when I was growing up (but I grew up in a rural area, so admittedly urban libraries may have been doing those programs/events).  Given that Freedom Libraries are not covered in library school coursework and the lack of diversity in the field (it’s Caucasian-dominated), I think this should be a required reading to teach this missing history and empathy to another large group of Americans.

This review is based on an advanced reader copy from NetGalley and the publisher.


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