April 29, 2017  

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Professor’s Research of Segregated Public Libraries in the South Available Online

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Photo of patrons at a segregated library, 1928, from the Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs, University of Virginia Special Collections.

University of Southern Mississippi Assistant Professor Matthew Griffis’ research on the history of segregated public libraries in the South, a project funded with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in Washington, D.C. is now available online at http://aquila.usm.edu/rocoverview/.

Entitled "The Roots of Community: Segregated Carnegie Libraries as Spaces for Learning and Community-Making
in Pre-Civil Rights America, 1900-65," Dr. Griffis’s project examines the 12 segregated Carnegie libraries that opened across the South between 1905 and 1920. They were part of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s library building program which funded more than 1,600 American public libraries from 1900-1925.

“These 12 libraries served for decades as learning and community spaces for African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights south,” Griffis said. “By the 1970s, most were integrated or had simply closed. But compared to the hundreds of other Carnegie libraries, we know little about these 12.”

The project’s website, launched during Black History Month 2017, was made possible with additional support from Southern Miss’s open access digital repository, the Aquila Digital Community. It is designed to share information about the project with the general public.

Griffis’s project was one of 20 chosen for IMLS funding last spring from a pool of 107 proposals submitted from across the country. “It’s increasingly difficult to secure funding for historical projects,” said Griffis, a member of the USM School of Library and Information Science faculty.

Although he will publish his research as a book, Griffis designed the project as more than just routine scholarship. He is also completing interviews with surviving patrons of these libraries, recording their recollections of using them in the days before integration. While segregated libraries were not uncommon in the days of Jim Crow, Griffis’s project is one of the first to focus exclusively on all 12 of the Carnegie-funded ones and to include interviews.

“Reading in books about what life was like for African Americans before the Civil Rights Movement is one thing; hearing from people that actually experienced it is something else,” Griffis says. “The interviews add a very human aspect to the project. I’m grateful to the IMLS for their support, because now these stories can be told before it’s too late.” The first interviews will be added to the website later this year.

Griffis is currently completing archival research in Louisville, Ky., where the first segregated Carnegie library opened in 1905. Last fall, Griffis completed research in Meridian and Mound Bayou, Miss., and will continue his work over the next two years in Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Savannah, New Orleans, Houston, Greensboro, and Evansville. For more information about Griffis’ project, contact him at matthew.griffis@usm.edu or 601.266.4228.

About IMLS
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. Its mission has been to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. For the past 20 years, its grant making, policy development, and research has helped libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov and follow the IMLS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.