Wheeler, Johnson-Houston, and Walker state that “At the end of the 18th century, African Americans who could read were virtually nonexistent (or invisible), except for a few in northern or free states” (Wheeler, 2004). During slavery, education of blacks was against the law in all of the southern states but Tennessee. It seems nothing short of miraculous that Thomas Fountain Blue, the subject of this paper, was able to accomplish what he did. It is important that we remember what these pioneering figures did to improve the lives of generations of African Americans, and unfortunate that so little is written about these men and women.
African Americans have experienced institutional segregation in the United States since the end of slavery. Naturally, this practice extended to public library services and was especially true in the southern states. While public libraries began to be established in the south after 1895, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that African Americans were able to gain greater access to libraries. Even in the northern states, full integration of libraries was rare (Dumont, 1986). It is worth noting that some strides were made in the 19th century towards library service for African Americans such as a school and library established for African Americans in Wilmington, Delaware in 1816. Also, in 1886, the main library and the first four branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore opened and provided service to users of all races (Timeline in Library Development for African Americans, n.d.). Two of the first public libraries for African Americans were established at the beginning of the 20th century. In Memphis, Tennessee in 1903, the Cossitt Library partnered with LeMoyne Institute, a black normal school, to provide a librarian and books for a school library that was also available to residents. In Galveston, Texas in 1904, the Rosenberg Library built a branch for the city’s African-American residents. (Fultz, 2006).
In 1902, legislation created a free public library system in Louisville, Kentucky. Albert Meyzeek, an African American and high school principal in Louisville, convinced the city’s library committee that African Americans should have access to library services. The Louisville Free Public Library opened in 1905 with a plan to establish a branch library for its “colored” citizens with funds already pledged by Andrew Carnegie. (A Separate Flame, n.d.). Thomas Fountain Blue was chosen to head this branch.
Rev. Thomas Fountain Blue was born the son of slaves in Farmville, Virginia in 1866. He attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and graduated in 1888. He taught school in Virginia and then went on to study at Richmond Theological Seminary where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1898. He worked as a secretary of the YMCA and served soldiers of the Spanish-American War. He then moved to Louisville where he was secretary of the YMCA from 1899 to 1905.
In 1905, Blue became librarian of the Western Colored Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, which occupied three rooms in a private home. Five years later, the Eastern Colored Branch opened with Blue heading it as well. In 1920 he was named director of the library’s Colored Division. Blue was the first African American to head a public library system. His reputation as the head of an efficient library serving black people spread nationwide. He was mentioned in several publications and the head of the American Library Association (ALA) sent Blue a letter in which he praised his “excellent work” (Malone, 1995). Blue created an apprentice class for those wanting to enter library service which drew students from as far away as Houston. The class led to the establishment of the Hampton Library School in Virginia (A Separate Flame, n.d.). In 1922, Blue presented a paper “Work with the Negro Roundtable” at the annual meeting of the ALA. In his paper, Blue discusses his librarian training class. The class was the first library training program offered in the South for African Americans and was in operation from 1912 until 1931 (Little Known Black Librarian Facts, 2012). Other groundbreaking achievements included Blue’s organization in 1927 of the First Negro Library Conference held at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. Additionally, in 1923, Blue and his assistant Rachel Harris helped open the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch of the George M. Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg, Virginia. The branch provided library services to African Americans in Lynchburg (Little Known Black Librarian Facts, 2012).
Blue directed a myriad of auxiliary services in his libraries including:
- City and county school collection rooms and book stations
- Negro History Week programs
- Lists of circulating books and pamphlets
- Monthly book reviews
- The Douglas Debating Club
- Social club meetings and budget structure
- The Story Hour
- Comments and criticisms to other libraries
- Historically significant speeches or papers
- A collection of funny jokes, cartoons, and sayings
Thomas Fountain Blue died on November 10, 1935. On November 25, 1935, the Louisville Free Public Library Board of Trustees passed a resolution of appreciation of this library pioneer. The Reverend Thomas F. Blue Papers is a collection held at the Louisville Free Public Library that includes handwritten and typed notes, addresses, and articles about library work written and/or presented by Blue. The collection also includes articles and resolutions about his life and career and photos of Blue, his staff, and his diplomas. The collection has been digitized and can be viewed at https://nyx.uky.edu/fa/findingaid/?id=xt7bcc0tr065. Those interested learning more about African American librarianship might seek information about people like Edward Christopher Williams who was the nation’s first professional African-American librarian, and Dr. Sadie Peterson Delaney, a pioneer in bibliotherapy (HONORING AFRICAN AMERICAN LIBRARIANS, 2013).
A Separate Flame. (n.d.). Retrieved from Louisville Free Public Library: http://www.lfpl.org/western/htms/sepflame.htm
Dumont, R. (1986). Race in American librarianship: Attitudes of the library profession. Journal of Library History, 488-509.
Fultz, M. (2006). Black public libraries in the south in the era of de jure segregation. Libraries & the cultural record, 337-359.
HONORING AFRICAN AMERICAN LIBRARIANS. (2013). Retrieved from Smithsonian Libraries Unbound: https://blog.library.si.edu/2013/02/honoring-african-american-librarians/#.V12mhvkrKM8
Little Known Black Librarian Facts. (2012). Retrieved from http://littleknownblacklibrarianfacts.blogspot.com/2012/04/rev-thomas-fountain-blue-and-colored.html
Malone, C. (1995). Louisville Free Public Library’s racially segregated branches, 1905-35. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 159-179.
Timeline in Library Development for African Americans. (n.d.). Retrieved from American Libraries Magazine: https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/timeline-in-library-development-for-african-americans/
Wheeler, M. J.-H. (2004). A brief history of library service to African Americans. American Libraries, 42-45.
Wright, L. (1955). Thomas Fountain Blue, Pioneer Librarian.