Depending on where you count from, the Richmond Public Library system is nearing its centennial.
The library today is assessing systemwide improvements, with “Richmond 300,” the city’s new master plan, guiding the way.
For Scott Firestine, director of the Richmond Public Library, this means surveys, community meetings “and listening — hearing what our patrons need from us.”
While Henrico and Chesterfield boast new and notable libraries, Firestine says these nearby counties didn’t open public libraries until the late 1960s or early 1970s, at about the same time several smaller Richmond branches opened.
“Our branches are neighborhood-based,” he says. “That’s reflected in what they carry on their shelves and their programming. Plus, you can walk, you can bike to them. The county libraries serve larger areas that usually require driving.”
Richmond’s relationship with libraries is long and often fraught with controversies about finances and patronage.
In 1901, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered Richmond funds for a library, but the process became tangled in the city’s divisions of class and race. The Richmond Library Association campaign that led to a 1906 Carnegie proposal crashed into the city’s unyielding finance committee, which instead allocated funds to annexations and rebuilding the sewage system.
In “A Power So Compelling,” a 2021 journal article for Libraries: Culture, History, and Society, historian and librarian Alexandra Zukas writes that the city’s acceptance of Carnegie’s offer would have resulted in a segregated library: “When local editorialists lamented the lost opportunity and claimed that the general public supported the plan, they referred to a white public.”
At the time, Virginia laws segregated schools and restricted Black residents’ seating on transportation. The Virginia General Assembly in 1902 implemented a constitution that enforced literacy tests and poll taxes. These laws hampered voting for Blacks and many working-class whites.
“Moonlight and Magnolias” novelist and lawyer Thomas Nelson Page memorialized his wife, Ann Seddon Bruce Page, with a library, the Rosemary Reading Club for Boys. The library grew and moved until it merged in 1916 with downtown John Marshall High School. This library remained open in the evenings for after-work use by white adults.
The Richmond Library Association, formed in 1922 and headed by newspaper publisher John Stewart Bryan, advocated for a public library. A petition with almost 50,000 signatures pressured the city to issue $200,000 in bonds to build and furnish a library, but no money was included for maintenance.
A 1923 library board meeting, led by Bryan, discussed location, membership and circulation. Zukas points to surviving notes, where there was, “at the bottom of the last page, another topic: ‘Colored branch discussed.’ ”
The board selected Thomas Parker Ayer as head librarian. A New Hampshire native and Brown University graduate, Parker had worked at the Library of Congress and as librarian at the Federal Trade Commission.
The library board purchased the former Lewis Ginter mansion at 901 W. Franklin St. from the estate primarily managed by his niece, Grace Arents, and the Richmond Public Library at the Ginter House opened on Oct. 13, 1924, with 20,000 volumes and 8,000 people attending.
The library board in 1925 received a request for a library branch to serve Black patrons. The African American YWCA offered, rent-free, two upstairs rooms in its building at 515 N. Seventh St. in Jackson Ward. This space was named for educator and activist Rosa D. Bowser (1855-1931), whose career began at the Navy Hill School. Belle Boyd, a teacher at Manchester’s Dunbar School, became the full-time librarian.
Meanwhile, Grace Arents included a library in the St. Andrews Oregon Hill neighborhood complex she organized. In 1926, she bequeathed it to the city library system, which nearly closed the branch because it employed a Black custodian.
When Sallie May Dooley died in 1925, her will bequeathed $500,000 to establish a library “for all” Richmonders, with the stipulation it be named for her husband, James Dooley, a Confederate veteran, wealthy lawyer and book lover.
The board settled on a main library location at East Franklin Street between First and Second streets. The city opposed ceding an entire city block but relented.
Richmond’s Baskervill and Lambert built the library in association with New York-based Edward L. Tilton — an architect for Carnegie’s libraries.
The city sold the Ginter house to the College of William and Mary for $85,000 in June 1930.
The Dooley Library that opened on Dec. 15, 1930, suited the fashionable Franklin Street surroundings, built in art deco style from stone and marble with “towering, welded-glass lanterns flanking its elaborate, Ghiberti-esque doors,” as Zukas describes.
The door remained shut to Black Richmonders, however, including insurance agent Homer I. Rose. On Aug. 28, 1936, he found the Bowser Branch Library closed for the summer while the Dooley Branch Library was open, but not for him or other Black residents. Rose, who was active in the NAACP, filed a memorandum with the federal district court. His allies included lawyer Edinboro A. Norrell, who declared the barring of Rose from the library to be a violation of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
Josephus Simpson, managing editor of the Richmond Planet and a vocal opponent of segregation, wanted the case appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but Federal Judge Robert N. Pollard dismissed it.
A decade later, the Business and Professional Men’s Association formed as the activist arm of the Leigh Street YMCA, the Black chapter of the Greater Richmond YMCA.
The association in 1947 petitioned the library board and head librarian Ayer, calling the prohibition of Black residents unconstitutional and un-American.
On May 28, 1947, the library board by unanimous vote agreed to “welcome patrons of all races.”
City attorney J. Elliot Drinard used Sallie May Dooley’s words in her bequest that the library serve all Richmonders.
He explained that by fulfilling the terms of an agreement, rather than abiding by the 14th Amendment, this avoided precedent for civil rights activists.
On May 28, the library board by unanimous vote agreed to “welcome patrons of all races.” Except only African Americans 16 and older were permitted. Ayer stressed this was because of a single children’s restroom in the building. While not implicitly stated, the restriction abided by the era’s policy of segregated bathrooms. The board also announced two additional branches for Black neighborhoods.
By then, the library board had purchased 00 Clay St., the former Dill Mansion, for the Bowser Branch Library. (This library closed in 1964 when an East End Branch Library that had been promised for 17 years finally opened.)
“It was a slow process that demanded patient, collective effort and ended with a door opening, unwillingly,” Zukas writes.
The main branch of the Richmond Public Library today presents a variety of programs, lectures, art exhibitions, workshops and community gatherings for all.
In 1972, an expansion designed by Baskervill & Son enveloped the Dooley building. Consulting national architectural firm Steinberg Hart and Richmond’s KEI are scheduled to submit their ideas for library improvements this month.
The primary need at the main branch today as reflected in patron responses to recent surveys and meetings?
“Parking,” Director Firestine says.
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