Savannah’s Carnegie Library a testament to perseverance

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It’s been slightly more than a century since the Carnegie Library in Savannah, Ga., opened, offering increased access to books, learning and knowledge for blacks at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Among those who called the library home were James Allen McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie provided funding for the construction of nearly 1,700 public libraries across the United States between 1886 and 1923. Carnegie, a self-made man, believed in giving to those who were interested in helping themselves.

After he became one of the richest men in America, Carnegie began providing funding for libraries, initially in his native Scotland, later in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, then across the nation and other parts of the world.

savannah-27-2016-041In areas where segregation was in effect, particularly the Deep South, Carnegie often had separate libraries built for minorities.

All Carnegie libraries were built according to a formula that required financial commitments from the towns which received donations.

The black residents of Savannah raised $3,000 to show their commitment, and the Carnegie Corp. contributed $12,000, according to a history of the library written on its 100th anniversary.

The Colored Library Association of Savannah had been formed in 1906 by 11 men who established the Library for Colored Citizens. Originally operating from a doctor’s office, the founders stocked the library from personal libraries and public donations of books and periodicals.

In 1913, the group successfully petitioned the Carnegie Corp. for funds to build a permanent structure, which was completed in 1915 on East Henry Street in Savannah.

The structure is one of the few examples in Georgia of what is colloquially known as Prairie School architecture, a late 19th- and early 20th-century style that included flat or hipped roofs with broad overhanging eaves and windows grouped in horizontal bands.

The structure features granite steps framed by large piers with sandstone orbs on small pedestals. The staircase is flanked by four tiered brick walls, and the corners of the piers, the band over the second-story windows and brick cornice which divides the two floors feature dark glazed bricks.

The Savannah Carnegie Library is one of just two Carnegie library projects that were built for blacks in Georgia. The other was in Atlanta and was demolished in 1960.

The Savannah City Library system was integrated in 1963 and the Savannah Carnegie library itself fell into some disrepair. In the late 1990s, its roof fell in.

In 2004, after more than $1.3 million was raised in private and public funds, the structure was reopened after being remodeled and renovated.

Among those on hand for the reopening was Thomas, a Savannah native who joined the US Supreme Court in 1991.

Thomas told the Savannah Morning News at the time of the reopening that as a youngster he was often told, “’The man’ ain’t going to let you do nothing.”

But he recalled that Carnegie librarians had a more positive message: “If you get (knowledge) here, no one can take it away.”

“The librarians made it all possible,” he added.

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4 thoughts on “Savannah’s Carnegie Library a testament to perseverance

  1. I’m struck by the contrast of the initial costs and the renovation costs!

    And yes, libraries make anything possible when you have librarians who encourage kids, show them how to research…I owe a lot to the librarians of my youth and despair at the collapse of the public library system in the U.K. How the blazes are kids to get out of sink estates and sink lives without the inspiration – not to speak of the comfort and quiet – of a library?

    Our little town here is building a library…yes, I know the kids will go there to use the computers, but those in the queue might even start to read the books…

    • The library in Savannah had a significant addition patched onto it when it was remodeled, which, I believe, accounted for a good bit of the extra expense.

      No doubt that books and libraries open worlds for many that would be unimaginable otherwise. Even I, who at a young age cared for reading no much else other than baseball box scores, would occasionally find myself in the book section of a library and, against my better judgment, would even pick a tome off the shelf from time to time and start reading. And over time I found that I enjoyed it!

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