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Free Coloured Library, Knoxville, Tennessee (1918-1961)

Free Coloured Library, Nelson and East Vine Street, Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1926 (Image courtesy of the Knoxville County Public Library)

In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history

The Free Coloured Library of Knoxville, Tennessee, was a segregated public library that opened in 1918 and closed 43 years later in 1961. It was the first municipally supported library for African-Americans in Knoxville and one of 12 segregated public libraries opened in the South between 1908 and 1924, and funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Knoxville founded its municipal library, the Lawson McGhee Library, in 1883. It was re-established as a free public library in 1914 but still served only Whites. After the McGhee Library denied service to several African-American teachers in 1915, one of these teachers, school principal Charles Warner Cansler, approached the mayor Samuel G. Heiskell for help in obtaining a grant from Andrew Carnegie for a library for the city’s Blacks. Knoxville’s population at the time was more than 36,000 people, about 21 per cent of whom were African-American.

In 1916, Carnegie donated $10,000 towards the library, which opened on the corner of Nelson Avenue and East Vine Street in May 1918. Local architect Albert B. Bauman Jr designed the facility, whose main floor contained a reference room and separate reading rooms for adults and children. Its basement included meeting rooms and a large auditorium. Like most segregated public libraries at the time, Knoxville’s Free Coloured Library did not open under its own board of African-American trustees; it operated as a branch of the city’s Lawson McGhee Library, which was governed by an all-White board.

The Free Coloured Library served Knoxville’s African-American community as an intellectual centre, recreation centre and community gathering place. Upon the library’s opening in 1918, Charles Warner Cansler remarked: “The building will have served its purpose only in part if it becomes only the centre of the activities of the reading Coloured people of this community. There is not today in the city of Knoxville … a single decent place, with the exception of stores or offices, where a Coloured man or woman can go for rest and relaxation.”

The library circulated thousands of books and magazines for reading, study and improvement, and provided space for clubs and community organisations to gather. It established and maintained beneficial relationships with many segregated public schools and offered Black students reading clubs to join in the summer.

Marian M. Hadley was its first branch librarian; her replacement in 1924 was J. Herman Daves, who later taught sociology and economics at Knoxville College and even later served as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Supervisor of Negro Education. Later branch librarians included Sallye Juanita Long-Carr and Goldie Carter.

Despite establishing an adjunct Negro Advisory Board in the 1950s, the Free Coloured Library — later known as the Coloured Library Branch — began to decline in use. It closed in 1961 and was later demolished. A second segregated branch, the Murphy Branch Library, opened in 1930 and continued to serve Knoxville’s African-Americans after the Free Coloured Library closed.

Griffis, M. (2019, November 17) Free Colored Library, Knoxville, Tennessee (1918-1961). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/free-colored-library-knoxville-tennessee-1918-1961/

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Published February 15, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated February 14, 2021 at 3:15 pm)

Free Coloured Library, Knoxville, Tennessee (1918-1961)

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