Five Black Librarians Who Changed My World (Before I Even Knew Their Names)

Paying homage to the waypavers.

I have mixed feelings about the designation Black History “Month,” since African American history is rich enough to be celebrated all year long. That said, cultural markers are important to me, and Black History Month holds a special place in my soul. I could not let it go by without acknowledging the contributions of some incredible African American librarians who paved the way for me and so many others.

I reference numerous sources in this blogpost, all of which are listed at the bottom of the page.

Charlemae Hill Rollins, 1897-1979

Head of the children’s department at the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library in Chicago, Rollins was committed to promoting diverse images of African Americans in children’s books.  In 1972, she became the first African American woman to receive an American Library Association honorary membership.

Memorable quote: “Hearing a wonderful story well told, can bring escape from hunger, from drab surroundings, from hate and rejection, and escape from injustices of all kinds.”

Arna Bontemps, 1902-1973

This award-winning author was Fisk University’s head librarian for two decades. In addition to being one of the most well-known poets of the Harlem Renaissance, he was also a children’s book author, a novelist, and a writer of short stories.

Memorable quote: “How dare anyone, parent, schoolteacher, or merely literary critic, tell me not to act colored.”

Alma Smith Jacobs, 1916-1997

Jacobs was the chief librarian at the Great Falls Public Library in Montana from 1954 to 1973. She was the first African American woman to serve as Montana State Librarian and the first African American member of the American Library Association’s executive board.

Memorable quote: “The public library is the poor man’s university.”

 E.J. Josey, 1924-2009

Josey was the first African American librarian allowed to join the Georgia Library Association and the second African American president of the American Library Association. In 1970, he founded the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA).

Memorable quote: “In order that we understand the roots from which we came, we must make sure that our library collections represent diversity and that there are books by and about black people on the shelves.”

Dorothy Porter Wesley, 1905-1995

Under Porter Wesley’s leadership, Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center became a vast and internationally recognized repository of African American historical materials. Porter Wesley was known to go through attics, basements, and even trash cans hunting for items of historical significance.

Memorable quote: “I learned to read a lot early, and to use the dictionaries and encyclopedias early, because my father insisted on buying books when I wanted money for skates. I wanted ice skates, and he wanted books, so I got books instead of ice skates.”


Charlemae Hill Rollins

ALA Member News. (2016, February 16). 2016 Charlemae Rollins president’s program on youth library spaces. Retrieved from

Charlemae Hill Rollins. (2004). Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved February 17, 2017 from

Arna Bontemps

Aldrich, I. (Last updated 1015, March 6). Arna Bontemps Biography. In The website. Retrieved from

Johnson, V. (n.d.). Arna Bontemps left a rich literary legacy. In Central Rappahannock Regional Library: Inspiring lifelong learning. Retrieved from

Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Arna Bontemps 1902-1973. Retrieved from (n.d.). Arna Bontemps 1902-1973, Alexandria, LA. Retrieved from

University of Hawai’i Honolulu Community College. (Last updated 2016, September 8). Harlem Renaissance: Black history & literature: Featured authors. Retrieved from

Alma Smith Jacobs

Garner, C. (n.d.). Jacobs, Alma S. (1916-1997). In Retrieved from

Montana Historical Society. (n.d.). Montana’s African American heritage resources. Retrieved from

Van Middendorp, K. (2016, September 3). Alma Smith Jacobs honored with mural at Great Falls Public Library. KRTV.Com. Retrieved from

Women’s History Matters. (2014, January 14). Alma Smith Jacobs: beloved librarian, tireless activist. Retrieved from

E. J. Josey

American Libraries. (2009, July 6). Civil rights pioneer, librarian E. J. Josey Dies at 85. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Hart, P. (2009, July 23). Obituary: E. J. Josey. University Times. Retrieved from

Josey, E. J. (posted 2009, July 12 by Eric B on California Librarians Black Caucus website). Speech by E.J. Josey (April 5, 1998, National Sankofa Council on Educating Black Children Conference, Merrillville, IN). Retrieved from

Dorothy Porter Wesley

Broward County Library Without Walls (BCL WOW). (n.d.). Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection. Retrieved from

Lach, Jr. E. L. (n.d.). Wesley, Dorothy Porter. In American National Biography Online. Retrieved from

Madison, A.J., & Wesley, D.P. (1995). Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley: Enterprising Steward of Black Culture. Public Historian, 17(1), 15-40. doi: 10.2307/3378349 (Stable URL:

Pace, E. (1995, December 20). Dorothy Porter Wesley, 91, Black-history archivist. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Uzelac, C. P. (n.d.). Porter Wesley, Dorothy (1905-1995). In Retrieved from


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