In observance of Black History Month, we offer this brief overview of the legacy of racial segregation and integration at the Charleston County Public Library. The following information was collected from the library’s own institutional archive, which includes original correspondence, board minutes, and newspaper scrapbooks.
The history of racial integration and segregation within the Charleston County Public Library system dates back to the earliest days of the institution. In compliance with its 1930 agreement with the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supplied the seed money for the library, the main branch of the Charleston Free Library, as it was then known, was integrated from the day it opened its doors in January 1931. That is to say, the main branch, then located in the Charleston Museum’s “Thomson Auditorium” at 121 Rutledge Avenue, housed a separate “colored collection” and, in the earliest years, observed a limited schedule of “colored hours.” The practice of limiting African American patrons to a segregated collection of books was continued in 1934 when the main branch moved to 94 Rutledge Avenue, but the practice of having separate white and colored service hours appears to have ended at that time. The matter of separate restrooms and drinking fountains for the two classes of citizens did not arise because the antiquated Rutledge Street building, originally a large single-family residence built in 1854, offered no such facilities to the public.
From the beginning, however, the library’s principal service to African American patrons was conducted through the “negro branch” at Dart Hall on Kracke Street. In its early years, the library system also operated two bookmobiles, one of which was always described as the “colored” or “negro” bookmobile. As the organization expanded in the middle of the twentieth century, the county library opened several new branches outside the city of Charleston that were tacitly designated as “white” facilities. In order to serve African American readers throughout the county, the library installed circulating book “deposits” at a number of black schools throughout the community.
During its first three decades of operation, therefore, the main branch of the Charleston County Public Library was racially integrated, albeit in a limited and conditional manner. When the library opened a new main branch building at 404 King Street on 28 November 1960, however, its services, collections, and facilities were unconditionally integrated for the first time in the library’s history. A newspaper editorial on 23 December 1960 observed that the wholesale integration of the main library, which was done without government pressure, represented “the most significant change in local race relations since the opening in 1948 of the Democratic primaries to Negro voters,” which was effected under federal orders.
In the years after the opening of the new main branch in 1960, the racial segregation practiced in the library’s other branches began to disintegrate. Rather than proclaiming the definitive end to the practice of maintaining separate facilities and services, the surviving administrative records contain only cryptic references that suggest a gradual termination of these traditional practices. The minutes of the library’s board of trustees in October 1962, for example, mention a recent meeting of its Civil Rights Advisory Committee. In August 1963 the library’s director reported the presence of “a large number of negroes” at the Mt. Pleasant library (the “Village” branch), and smaller numbers visiting the Cooper River Memorial branch. At the same time, references to the “colored” bookmobile are replaced by reports of “bookmobile No. 2.” In November 1964 the library director asked the board of trustees “whether we should consider adding a Negro to the Library Board.” Finally, on 4 March 1965 the library director informed the board that she had received a memorandum from the board of the South Carolina State Library regarding compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated desegregation. On that day the board of the Charleston County Public Library formally acknowledged its compliance with the provisions of that federal law. In short, the era of segregation in the Charleston public library system had officially ended.