The library my parents built
Since I've been experiencing my midlife crisis, I've been rethinking some of the events of my life -- some pleasant, some not so much. One event I recall happened when I was a toddler, give or take.
When I was about three or four years of age (in 1964 or 1965), my family lived on the Westside of Chicago at twenty-first and Trumbell, down the street from Crown Elementary School.
My parents were avid readers and encouraged my brothers and I to read as well. Because of the sheer number of books we all read, it was impractical to purchase every book, so the library would be the number one place to acquire reading materials at an affordable cost. Both of my parents worked -- my mother days and my father, evenings. They would stop at libraries on their way to or from work. This was not a problem until many of the children in the neighborhood, my brothers included, needed to do homework that required information from the library. There was no library in close proximity to our home.
My parents looked at the problem and began to look for a solution. After discussing the issue with the precinct captain, it was discovered that a library was not considered a priority for the area and there was no money available for one in that particular neighborhood, a Black neighborhood. Not to be discouraged, my parents decided to purchase encyclopedias so that my brothers could have access to information they may need for school, but it still left the problem of the other children in the neighborhood, who still needed to do research to complete their homework.
They discussed the matter for weeks and decided to build a library for the neighborhood. They agreed they could afford to spend a certain amount of money on this project. There was an empty basement in the building we lived in. They asked the landlord to let them rent the space for a library which would be available to the neighborhood. When they approached the landlord and told him what they intended to do, he laughed and said, that since he didn't use the basement for anything he would donate the basement to the community to use as a library, provided my parents would manage the entire project. It was in this manner that the first library in the neighborhood was built.
My parents had the space to house the books in their new library, but what they didn't have were books, tables, chairs or lights. They began the process by putting out the word about their lofty project. They told family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, the mailman, the garbage-man, the church, the school, the precinct captain and all of the stores and businesses in the area of their desire to build a library in the basement of our building and the response was overwhelming.
Suddenly our home was like Grand Central Station. Anytime I was awake my number one playmates, while my brothers were at school, were suddenly busy all the time. There were tables that wobbled, chairs with missing legs, chairs that needed reupholstering, books that needed to be organized into categories and logged. We would receive lamps that didn't work, record players that didn't play, encyclopedia sets with missing books and tons of old newspapers and magazines. There were also typewriters that wouldn't type, mimeograph machines that would not print and reel-to-reel tape players that wouldn't hold a reel, let alone play. We received old seventy-eight records, reels and reels of tapes, children's books, romance novels, biographies, dusty old books with pages missing, blocks of paper, pencils, pens, index cards, file cabinets and the list goes on and on. Our two bedroom apartment became the garbage dump of our neighborhood. Then something amazing happened, people started showing up with wood for shelves, material to reupholster the chairs, material to help keep the tables from wobbling, tools, sewing kits, food, alcohol, lots of food and alcohol, suggestions and offers to help repair broken items and build the library.
I was even allowed to help. I was given stacks of books and a pencil and index cards and I was told to copy the name of the book very carefully and neatly on the index cards and my father would come by and show me the author's name to copy also. As I think of my own son's writing at the same age, I can only imagine what some people must have thought as they went through the card catalog to find a certain book or author, only to find my large "child printing". Suddenly, the disorganized mess that was all over our apartment was gone and the basement was a nice library.
The library was separated into sections. There were at least twelve tables with chairs. Some of them were card tables, some were kitchen tables and others were dining room tables. Most of the chairs didn't match, but there were chairs to sit in to read and study at the tables. There were cocktail tables and end tables, comfy chairs and love seats to sit and relax as you listened to blues, classical, gospel or jazz in the music room where people listened to music using head-phones. There was a magazine room where you could read magazines and newspapers. All of the books were categorized into sections; non-fiction, fiction, do it yourself, children, pre-teens, teens, adult, research and so forth. Most of the lighting used were repaired lamps -- some had shades that obviously didn't go with them and some without shades at all. There were a few rugs and pictures to give it a homey look. The file cabinets were strategically placed and filled with a large amount of index cards, placed in a logical and orderly manner to assist in locating the books on the shelves or the records in the music section.
Finally, the day came to open the library to the public, but there would need to be a system to keep up with who took which book and what books were returned. Our library was not part of the public library system of the city of Chicago so there were no library cards. We had a very simple system; a sheet of paper, a pencil and each person's word that they would sign their name, address and if they had a telephone number, their phone number, along with their promise to return the book after two weeks. Most people did return the books after two weeks, but even with those that didn't return their books, if someone either called them or went to their house, the person would return the book with no problem and there was no late fee.
Our library got a lot of use by a lot of people throughout the neighborhood. Many times I would go to the library with one of my parents and someone would be in the music room with head phones on, smiling as they listened to some mysterious music or singing soundlessly as their face expressed the emotion that must have gone with the song, while someone else was in the magazine room reading a newspaper or magazine. At scattered tables there would be students, some older than my brothers, studying hard. And there always seemed to be some young mother in the children's section, looking for a book for her child. My parents, their friends and our neighbors bonded together and there were people available to help the students and tutor those that needed help.
The library that my parents built was an unbelievable asset to our community. It brought together so many people from so many different walks of life and produced a valuable asset in an area that needed it.
Sadly, the time came, three or four years later, when we moved away and there would no longer be a library to look after. We moved to a neighborhood with a library five blocks away. Many times over the years that followed, I wondered what became of the library my parents worked so hard to build.
As an adult in my thirties, I spoke to a friend of my brother's who had lived in the old neighborhood all those years ago. He was the one person who could answer my questions about the library.
Sadly, after we left, the library fell apart. There was no one there to manage the upkeep of the library, so people began to take the things they wanted from the library and eventually the items that remained were discarded and thrown in the garbage. He described the demise of the library with such sorrow that it truly hurt my heart.
Without my parents to organize, the tutors stopped coming, some of the kid's grades began to fall as a result. No one made sure that books were returned or put back in their places. He described the slow death of a valuable asset that disappeared at a time when it was needed, not only for the children, but also for the adults that were part of it. The look he had in his eyes that day told me that my parents were far more important to that little community than I had ever understood and so was the library they built.
My parents didn't look at their project as being a part of the Civil Rights movement, just as many other people that made a difference at a time that race played a part in the disparities of the United States did not consider themselves to be Civil Rights activists. They felt they were simply doing what needed to be done. None the less, the area of the city we lived in was not considered to be a location worthy of a library, mostly because its inhabitants were Black. True, the actions of people like my parents will vanish into nothingness, unknown and uncelebrated because there was not great sacrifice as compared to the rest of the Civil Rights movement. Despite this glaring fact, their actions were prompted by the racism which denied an entire community a simple building that housed books in a major U.S. city. While their actions were unknown to anyone outside the community and will remain forever unsung, there are some people that will never forget the library my parents built.