A Brown Bookshelf Trailblazer


One of my most favorite places in the world is the library. You know how most women might love to be locked inside of a department store or shoe store for a weekend?  I would love to be locked inside the library. Even now, I love to go to the library and walk the aisles perusing the shelves for favorite authors and hidden literary treasures.  I cannot tell you how many authors I have encountered by accident just by roaming around the library (and bookstores too).

I spent many hours in my elementary school library listening to Mrs. Brewer read us stories, helping us find books to read, and later working as a library during my recess.  Yes, I gave up swings, the sliding board, and the teeter totter to spend my extra time in the library.  As a teen, I remember going to the library and walking out with a huge stack of books to read for the next twenty-one days.  My dad was always sure I would never read them all before they were due back, but I managed to most of the time.

Earlier this year, while writing the sequel to Freshman Focus, I came across the name of the first Black librarian.  And it hit me.  As much as I love libraries, how come it took me thirty-one years to learn her name?  How dare I call myself a bibliophile and not know this important historical fact?  Just so you won’t be left in the dark, let me tell you as well.  Each one, teach one is my motto.  A native of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, Florence Virginia Proctor Powell began her career as a librarian at the New York Public Library in 1923.  You can read more about this pioneer here at the African American Registry which is a wealth of information. 

But today’s blog is about another library pioneer.  And while I have never met this woman, I believe in my heart that she would be very proud of The Brown Bookshelf, our goals and our mission.  While researching for a future blog, I came across the name Charlemae Hill Rollins who is pictured above.

Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi on June 20, 1897, Charlemae Hill Rollins was an African American library administrator and educator.  The granddaughter of a former slave, Rollins grew up hearing stories about her grandmother’s life as a slave and having children by the slave owner, including Rollins’ father.  Thanks to her grandmother, Rollins grew up reading books that used to be in the slave owner’s library.  Moving from Mississippi to Oklahoma as a child with her parents, Rollins attended a school founded by her family where her mother served as a teacher.  Growing up in a time where opportunities for Blacks were scarce, Rollins attended secondary schools in Missouri, Kansas, and Mississippi. 

Moving to Chicago with her husband, Rollins became a library assistant in 1927 and later became the first black head of a children’s department with the Chicago Public Library in 1932 at the newly opened George Cleveland Hall Branch Library.  Serving the community for 36 years, Rollins had a profound impact on African Americans in literature. 

She loved to encourage children and their parents to embrace reading and introducing them to Black history.  Rollins started a reading guidance clinic that encouraged a partnership among parents, teachers, children and books.  Often frustrated about the lack of resources and books about Blacks and the lack of diversity with the stories about Black people, “Rollins made it her mission to improve the image of Blacks in children’s books and to teach her young patrons about their heritage. She formed a Negro history club and a series of appreciation hours in which she taught children about the contributions of blacks. She researched and collected materials for her programs and made publishers aware of the need for books about African American culture and history. ‘I got to be quite a nuisance for the publishers, writing them letters on top of letters for more information,’ she told a contributor to American Libraries.” (source)

Go Mrs. Rollins!

“In the introduction to We Build Together Rollins states, ‘Whether books are written for Negro children or about them for other children, the objective should be the same. They should interpret life. They should help young people to live together with tolerance and to understand each other better.'” (source)

What I have shared here with you is just the surface of Mrs. Rollins’ contribution to African American literature.  I encourage you to check out the following sites that were instrumental in me learning more about Charlemae Hill Rollins, 1897 – 1979, a Brown Bookshelf trailblazer.

Extensive biography

Secondary biography with list of accolades

Charlemae Hill Rollins biography with quotes from Mrs. Rollins’ writing

8 thoughts on “A Brown Bookshelf Trailblazer

  1. Awesome post, Carla! You’ve educated me too. I’m a native of Pittsburgh and lived for a year in Wilkinsburg (part of Greater Pgh area) and never knew that the first black librarian came from our area. I’m proud to know her name. Thank you.

    Charlemae Hill Rollins was such an important force in library science and children’s literature. I moved to the Triangle area of NC and heard about the North Carolina Central University colloquium series named for Mrs. Rollins. Sadly, it ended years before I arrived. But there’s hope that it may be revived one day. That would be a gift.

  2. When I saw the Pennsylvania part, I thought of you not knowing just how close you lived to the Wilkinsburg area.

    They should absolutely revive that colloquium series! I read her bio and was amazed that I never heard about her. As I read her bio, I realized she is the honorary member of The Brown Bookshelf and needs to be recognized for her work in the literary community.

  3. Carla,

    Thanks for this post about Charlemae Hill Rollins. I was familar with her name, but not her awesome history.

    Can’t wait to read other Brown Bookshelf Trailblazer profiles!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *