UNT expert says Brown v. Board of Education altered the foundation and policies of public libraries

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Though the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is knownfor integrating schools, it also changed the face of public libraries.

May marks the 50th anniversary of the case and the beginning of the process tointegrate U.S. public libraries. Prior to the Civil War, laws prohibited blacksfrom reading as means to maintain their subjugation, says Maurice Wheeler, Universityof North Texas associate professor of library and information sciences. Afterthe war blacks endured poor, segregated library facilities or none at all underthe policy of "separate, but equal" created by the 1896 Supreme CourtCase Plessy v. Ferguson.

"The law placed the responsibility of providing facilities and services to blacksin the hands of each state," Wheeler said. "So the responses variedaccording to local culture and politics – accommodations could be separatebranches, rooms, entrances, days of service, policies or more often no serviceat all."

In fact, a 1935 survey of 565 public libraries in the country found only 83 offeringany kind of service to blacks.

Brown made states more accountable by proving that separate wasn't equaland created a precedent mandating equal access in everything from colleges tolibraries. Beyond this legal foundation, making integration a reality was anoften-violent process, Wheeler says.

"In one of the most noted incidents two Alabama, black ministers were assaultedby an angry mob for applying for library cards," he said. "In otherinstances African Americans were often beaten, arrested and lost their jobs forseeking access to a public library."

Those who demanded service were charged with disturbing the peace. It took asecond Supreme Court case Brown v. Louisiana in 1966 to create policies for publicfacilities to be equally applied to all patrons. The response by some communitieswas to close libraries rather than serve black patrons. Others removed all furnitureto discourage any mingling between black and white patrons, Wheeler says.

Despite, these challenges the libraries of today more appropriately serve thediverse populations of their communities, Wheeler says, but there are still manyproblems with access.

Now there is a tendency for libraries to be "ghettoized" by location,he adds, so that libraries in poorer, often minority-dominated areas have lessfunding and poorer facilities.

"Libraries are a reflection of what's happening in a society," hesays. "And you can tell a lot about a community by its libraries — ifan area is poor and underserved it's reflected in the libraries."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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