Douglass-Truth Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 12/26/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4056
The Douglass-Truth Branch Library is the home of the largest collection of African American literature and history on the West Coast. Originally named after pioneer and library patron Henry Yesler (1810-1892), the branch has witnessed wide changes in the community it serves. The Central Area has been home to many Jews, Japanese Americans, and finally African Americans. On October 14, 2006, after a two-year closure for construction, an expanded and remodeled Douglass-Truth Branch reopened.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Seattle's libraries were built largely with the help of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). His gifts paid for the Central Library and branches in Ballard, West Seattle, Green Lake, University District, Queen Anne, Columbia, and Fremont. The downtown site given to the city by pioneers Henry Yesler and his wife Sarah Yesler (1822-1887) for use as a library was too small for that purpose, so the library board sold that property to the City as a park. The board purchased a lot for a branch library at 23rd Avenue and Yesler Way with the proceeds.

Architects W. Marbury Somervell (1872-1939) and Harlan Thomas designed a building in the Italian Renaissance style. It was constructed at a cost of $34,784 -- the only branch at the time built with city funds rather than a gift from Carnegie. The building featured three main reading rooms and a 100-seat auditorium in the basement. Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919) was a guest of honor at the dedication on September 15, 1914. The branch was named after Henry Yesler. Readers started checking out books the next day.

Jewish Immigrants

The branch was an immediate hit and its circulation statistics exceeded the other branches. Children and teen borrowing outstripped adult circulation. The makeup of the neighborhood was reflected when the library received a petition asking for more books in Yiddish. The area along the Yesler cable car line attracted many Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia because of several synagogues in the area and the Hebrew Shelter and Immigrant Aid Society. Ads for the branch ran in the Jewish Voice and signs in Hebrew were posted in the neighborhood. Most of the Jewish patrons sought help in learning English as well as works in their native language. The librarian noted:

"The chosen people of New York and those of Seattle differ not at all -- the vivid imagination which visions for the Hester St. pushcart peddler his future department store on First Avenue, sweeps Yesler's shelves bare of fairy-tales ..."(Quarterly Reports).

Between October 7 and November 12, 1918, the branch, along with all other branches, theaters, schools, and other public places, was closed during the influenza pandemic that struck the city and the world. After World War I, immigration resumed and the Federation of Women's Clubs sponsored Americanization classes in the auditorium. The librarian met regularly with Jewish organizations to learn how better to serve the community. In 1922, she suggested "debating teams and amateur theatricals as the surest path to the heart of talkative and temperamental Jewry." She reported to her superiors, "The Yesler Branch can never be made a quiet place to read and study" (Quarterly Reports).

Japanese Americans

In the 1920s, Japanese immigrants began moving into the neighborhood, confined to that area by deed covenants that discriminated against people of color, including Asians. The Japanese American patrons asked for works in their native language as did other groups.

The popularity of the library with youth presented some discipline problems. Young people used the branch for social rather than educational purposes, compelling the assignment of a police officer in 1922 to monitor conduct during the evening. High school students reacted by boycotting the library, causing a drop in circulation statistics, then the measure of a library's success.

By 1932, the Yesler Branch featured books in 13 different languages and was home to the library system's Yiddish, Hebrew, and Japanese collections. That year, Yesler had the highest branch circulation in the system and the system's all-time high of some 239,000 books loaned. Through the Great Depression of the 1930s the library staff continued to serve a diverse and fairly harmonious community consisting largely of Jews, with Japanese Americans and some African Americans. Two members of the library staff were Japanese American women. Visitors came from Bainbridge Island and Issaquah for books in Japanese.

African Americans

World War II brought economic recovery and monumental change to the neighborhood. The forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to internment camps in 1942 robbed the branch of its most loyal borrowers. The Japanese collection was removed.

There followed an influx of thousands of African Americans who sought jobs in war industries. They found their way to the Central Area, the only neighborhood open to them given Seattle's discriminatory housing practices. The migrants from Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas occupied many of the homes of the Japanese American evacuees. This migration commenced a clash of cultures that continued for decades.

Librarians tried to accommodate the newcomers and "books about the Negro by Negro authors" were ordered. Black visitors were asked if they would prefer these books, which were kept separate from the rest of the collection or catalogued with works about slavery. Branch librarian Doris Hopkins met with the Christian Friends for Racial Equality in order "to understand the Negro," but that group was made up largely of white women and discussed issues more than they took action. In 1942, the library advertised a deposit station near 23rd Avenue and Madison Street to entice African American borrowers to use the library. The ads had to be amended to reflect that anyone could use the station.

By 1950, circulation at the branch had dropped dramatically and the staff and hours were cut. In the library management thinking of the time, the number of books a branch loaned out determined the resources the branch received. As circulation sagged, library hours and staffing were cut. Circulation dropped further, and so on, in a downward spiral. In 1957, the main library took advantage of the sag in circulation statistics to take over the basement as a base for the Bookmobile.

New Voices

In 1964, James A. Welch was appointed branch librarian. He inherited a barely functioning library. Children were allowed to play unsupervised inside and in front of the library because no one bothered to stop them. Two of the librarians were terrified of children and refused to come out from behind the desk (one became ill from the stress). All but three of the staff were Sephardic Jews, and none were black. University of Washington student (later Branch Librarian) Audrey Wright once asked a librarian about a job and was told, "We don't hire Negroes."

Welch had spent many years living overseas and was familiar with being an outsider. With the support of library management, he toured libraries in African American neighborhoods in New York and Detroit to learn how to serve an African American community. He tackled the discipline problem by getting parents involved. He joined the Central Area Community Council. He built a partnership with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and community leaders Minnie Russell and Roberta Byrd (Barr).

In 1966, Russell and Byrd organized the Black Friends of the Yesler Library to lobby for better service and maintenance, which had been long neglected (the single typewriter in the branch was 15 years old). The Friends collected money for African American literature and purchased Carter Woodson's Anthology. Families were invited to donate African American works held in private collections. When the library board considered closing the branch and converting it all to support the bookmobile, the Friends wrote letters to the library board and to the City Council. Council Member Sam Smith helped appropriate $46,000 for an African American collection. In 1969, one third of the adult circulation for the branch was African American literature and history.

Integration vs. Identity

The process of integration and school busing hurt the branch and the Friends' efforts to establish an African American collection. Children from the Central Area who were shipped to schools in other parts of the city returned home too late in the day to use the library, further driving down the circulation statistics. Ideas about equality and integration were used to argue against any distinct cultural identity for the branch and its collection. Welch and the Friends had to overcome a deeply held belief in library management that what worked in the past will always work.

In February 1969, Welch and the Friends sponsored a Black History Week and invited five nationally recognized African American writers to speak. The Yesler Branch and its collection became one symbol of the culture and identity of the neighborhood. In 1972, a 21-foot Soul Pole carved by the Rotary Boys' Club to depict 400 years of African American history was given to the library and erected on the lawn. The auditorium hosted meetings by various civil rights groups and youth groups as well as the Black Panthers, Radical Women, and the Students for a Democratic Society.

Henry and Sarah Yesler meant little to residents of the Central Area. The Friends and the community worked for a new name and asked for suggestions. Abolitionist leaders Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883) each received the same number of votes. On December 5, 1975, Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) proclaimed the branch the Douglass-Truth Library. The Black Friends of the Yesler Library became Friends of the Douglass-Truth Library.

In 1987, the branch underwent a long-needed $790,000 rehabilitation using monies from the 1984 1-2-3 bond issue.

In 2002, Douglass-Truth had the largest collection of African American literature and history on the West Coast and, with the possible exception of Texas Southern University, the largest west of the Mississippi. An extensive collection of newspaper clippings and brochures documenting the history of the Central Area continues to grow.

In 1998, Seattle voters approved the $196.4 million Libraries for All levy, which provided for remodeling all 22 of the city's branches, a new central library, and five new branches. On October 14, 2006, the remodeled branch, designed by Schacht Aslani Architects, opened after a $6.8 million remodel and expansion. The old reading room became the children's room. To reproduce exactly the 1914-era beige paint, architect Walter Schacht retained a paint archaeologist from Vancouver, B.C., to find a match. The branch is home to more than 9,000 items focused on African American history and culture.

Branch Librarians

    • Ida Adams, 1926-1941
    • Doris F. Hopkins, 1941- 1952
    • Richard Engen, 1956-1957
    • Mildred Burch, 1958-1959
    • Maud G. Forberg, 1960-1961
    • Jean H. Glafke, 1962-1964
    • James A. Welch, 1964-1972
    • Audrey Wright, 1972-1974
    • Irene Haines, 1975-1976
    • Cheryl Watson 1977
    • Regional Management, 1977-1990
    • John Sheets -1998
    • Carolyn Head 1999-2001
    • Valerie Garrett-Turner 2001-2004 
    • Jane Appling, January-May 2005
    • Francesca Wainwright, 2004-2005
    • Val Frye, 2005-2006 (branch transition manager)
    • Valerie Garrett-Turner, 2006-present

Sources: Kathryn Harper, "Truth At The Crossroads," an independent study research project, September 1999, Antioch University, bound typescript, Douglass-Truth Branch Library Archives; "Annual Reports - 1914-1949," manila envelopes, Douglass-Truth Library Archives; HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, "Douglass-Truth Branch of The Seattle Public Library reopens after remodel and expansion on October 14, 2006 (by David Wilma), "Mayor Uhlman Announces Renaming Seattle Public Library's Yesler Branch" (by David Wilma), and "Yesler Branch of Seattle Public Library opens on September 15, 1919" (by David Wilma) http://www.HistoryLink.org (accessed June 7, 2007); "Seattle Public Library Directory of Staff, 1967-1970" (bound toether, Seattle Room Collection, The Seattle Public Library; Seattle Public Library uncataloged archival materials, Box 4, "Personnel Staff Day," folders "Staff Directory 1950," and "Staff Directory 1956," and "Staff Directory 1960-1969," and unmarked folder containing staff directories 1970-1977, Seattle, Washington; Library Board of Seattle, Minutes of Proceedings, Vols. 5 (1934-1944), 6 (1945-1951), 7(1952-1957), 8 (1958-1961), 9 (1962-1966), 10 (1967-1970), 11 (1971-1973), 12 (1974-1976), 13  (1977-1978), Seattle Room, Central Branch, Seattle Public Library, Seattle.
Note: This essay was updated on December 30, 2007, on September 10, 2008, and again on February 15, 2009.

Related Topics:   Black Americans | Buildings | Education | The Seattle Public Library

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