Vi­vian Harsh, the city’s first black li­brar­ian, col­lected es­sen­tial books about African Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO FLASHBACK - By Ron Gross­man rgross­[email protected]­

You won’t find a book by Vi­vian Harsh on a li­brary shelf. Not even in the spe­cial col­lec­tion that bears her name in the Carter G. Wood­son Re­gional Li­brary on Chicago’s Far South Side. When she died in 1960, the Chicago De­fender’s obituary was head­lined: “His­to­rian Who Never Wrote.”

Yet Harsh, Chicago’s first black li­brar­ian, was fiercely com­mit­ted to his­tory. Ver­non Jar­rett, a colum­nist for both the Chicago Tri­bune and the Chicago Sun-Times, re­called some­thing she told him when he was a child:

“If we as Ne­groes knew the full truth about what we, as a race, have en­dured and over­come just to stay alive with dig­nity, our re­spect and hunger for ed­u­ca­tion would triple overnight.”

Harsh’s de­vo­tion to the past be­gan at Wen­dell Phillips High School, where she joined the Herodotus His­tory Club. The an­cients called Herodotus the fa­ther of his­tory.

Vi­vian Harsh was the mother of black his­tory.

Af­ter the Ge­orge Cleve­land Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Li­brary opened on the South Side with Harsh as head li­brar­ian, the Rosen­wald Fund gave her a $500 grant to study li­braries serv­ing black com­mu­ni­ties in other cities. Julius Rosen­wald, a phi­lan­thropist and pres­i­dent of Sears, Roe­buck & Co., was re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing the Hall Branch a re­al­ity in Chicago’s Bronzevill­e neigh­bor­hood.

Af­ter vis­it­ing New York, Washington, Cleve­land, Detroit and Ne­wark, New Jersey, Harsh drew up a list of 300 es­sen­tial books for read­ers in­ter­ested in black lit­er­a­ture and his­tory. To ac­quire them, she so­licited do­na­tions and ap­pealed to book­sellers who were friends for dis­counts. Ac­cord­ing to friends and col­leagues, she trav­eled through the South buy­ing books dur­ing sum­mer va­ca­tions.

As Harsh’s col­lec­tion grew, the Tri­bune ob­served in 1945: “If one is seek­ing in­for­ma­tion on any phase of Ne­gro life, his­tory, or cul­ture, for a the­sis or book, chances are he would has­ten to con­tact the Hall li­brary, 4801 Michi­gan av.”

When Harsh re­tired in 1958, the li­brary’s Spe­cial Ne­gro Col­lec­tion had 2,000 books, plus news­pa­per clip­pings, pam­phlets and manuscript­s.

For 26 years, Harsh had to scrape to­gether the time from her other du­ties to build the li­brary’s re­search po­ten­tial. She man­aged the staff and kept watch over the phys­i­cal plant.

En route to her desk each morn­ing, she’d pick up the small­est scrap of pa­per. She hec­tored her as­sis­tants about the need to keep the premises clean and neat. She men­tored lo­cal writ­ers, like nov­el­ist Richard Wright, and in­sisted that pa­trons give her li­brary the re­spect it de­served.

Timuel Black, a his­to­rian and ac­tivist, re­called Harsh throw­ing him out of the li­brary. He and his high school bud­dies had been mock­ing peo­ple who had re­cently mi­grated from the South.

Cu­ri­ously, de­spite Harsh’s de­vo­tion to pre­serv­ing a record of the African Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, she was with­hold­ing when it came to her own life. She wrote nary a mem­oir, let alone an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. She didn’t join in when col­leagues rem­i­nisced about their child­hoods.

As the De­fender’s obituary noted, Harsh “was an enigma to friend and foe alike.”

Per­haps she didn’t want to be­tray some fam­ily se­cret, sug­gests Me­lanie Cham­b­liss, who read a pa­per on Harsh at the re­cent con­ven­tion of the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion.

Cham­b­liss, a Columbia Col­lege pro­fes­sor, dis­cov­ered an in­trigu­ing twist in Harsh’s re­la­tion­ship with her younger brother, Fen­ton Harsh Jr. The two were close from child­hood un­til the 1940s, when he, his wife and their daugh­ter moved to Cicero. He was fair-skinned and lived there, in the jar­gon of the time, “pass­ing” as white.

Vi­vian Harsh’s niece re­called her aunt vis­it­ing her only once in Cicero. Even then, Harsh re­fused to get out of the car. Did she fear that, be­cause of her darker, olive com­plex­ion, she would out her brother as black to his neigh­bors?

De­spite Harsh’s re­luc­tance to tell her story, it can be pieced to­gether from doc­u­ments in the re­search col­lec­tion she founded and oth­ers have con­tin­ued.

Re­lo­cated to the Wood­son li­brary in 1975, its archival stor­age boxes stretch along 4,000 feet of shelf space. Por­ing through them for clues to Harsh has a fringe ben­e­fit: It gives you a tac­tile sense of his­tory.

Some letters in the col­lec­tion are on the crinkly, onion­skin pa­per typ­ists once fa­vored. Oth­ers are in Harsh’s pre­cise hand­writ­ing, in­clud­ing one to a correspond­ent over­seas: “I did envy you your op­por­tu­nity of vis­it­ing the many places of in­ter­est I had wanted to see, even though they are not un­der or­di­nary cir­cum­stances.”

As it is dated May 18, 1945, she may have been writ­ing to a GI in Europe as World War II was end­ing. She sent him news of the lit­er­ary scene: Richard Wright’s new book, prob­a­bly “Black Boy,” was earn­ing a good re­cep­tion, but not by the com­mu­nists who de­nounced Wright as a turn­coat. (Like other writ­ers in the lean years of the Great De­pres­sion, Wright was at­tracted by the Com­mu­nist Party’s prom­ise, only to be dis­il­lu­sioned by its re­al­ity.)

In one archival box there is a pho­to­graph of Wright giv­ing Harsh an au­to­graphed copy of his novel “Na­tive Son.” Another box holds the type­script of a poem, “What Shall I Tell My Chil­dren Who Are Black?”

It is by Mar­garet Bur­roughs who in­spired the cre­ation of the DuSable Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory by col­lect­ing ar­ti­facts for the same rea­son Harsh col­lected books: to show black Amer­i­cans that they have a her­itage and it is worth pre­serv­ing. Harsh’s mis­sion is echoed in the lines of Bur­roughs’ poem:

What shall I tell my dear ones raised in a white world

A place where white has been made to rep­re­sent

All that is good and pure and fine and de­cent.

The first ref­er­ences to Harsh pre­served in the archive hardly hint at her sub­se­quent ca­reer. De­fender clip­pings paint a word pic­ture of a smart-set so­cialite. She at­tended friends’ com­ing-out par­ties, danced the tango at a char­ity fundraiser and com­peted in a beauty queen con­test.

The Harshes were “old set­tlers,” hav­ing come to Chicago from Ten­nessee be­fore the Great Mi­gra­tion. Vi­vian Harsh’s fa­ther ran a pop­u­lar sa­loon, the Boys’ Re­treat, that made mem­bers of the fam­ily char­ter mem­bers of black Chicago’s up­per­mid­dle class.

In 1909, Vi­vian Harsh was hired as a clerk at the Chicago Public Li­brary. She slowly worked her way up CPL’s ranks and took col­lege cour­ses in li­brar­i­an­ship. In 1922, CPL’s chief li­brar­ian noted that other black li­brar­i­ans were re­luc­tant to work in black neigh­bor­hoods. But Harsh was among the few “keenly in­ter­ested in the wel­fare of their race.”

She speed­ily reaf­firmed that eval­u­a­tion when made head of the Hall Branch. She wasn’t dis­cour­aged by a con­tem­po­rary report of the li­brary’s en­vi­ron­ment that made its way into its Spe­cial Ne­gro Col­lec­tion. Once mid­dle-class, the neigh­bor­hood was home to poor, scarcely ed­u­cated, re­cent ar­rivals from the South.

Harsh was de­ter­mined to show the com­mu­nity the magic of the printed word. The li­brary had bookread­ing groups for young peo­ple and se­nior cit­i­zens. A lecture se­ries fea­tured such writ­ers as Wright, Langston Hughes and Gwen­dolyn Brooks.

Harsh, who suf­fered ro­man­tic heart­break and never mar­ried, had bound­less en­ergy. She put her heart and soul into the li­brary.

Her as­sis­tant, Charlemae Rollins, was in charge of the ju­ve­nile col­lec­tion. Famed for her sto­ry­telling, Rollins cam­paigned for more ap­pro­pri­ate chil­dren’s books than those avail­able when the Hall Branch opened.

“Many were il­lus­trated with pic­tures which in at­tempt­ing to be hu­mor­ous, ridiculed and car­i­ca­tured the Ne­gro child,” Rollins re­ported in 1942. She was widely rec­og­nized as an ex­pert on the sub­ject.

A 1954 Tri­bune head­line read: “Hall Li­brary Be­comes a Ne­gro Cul­tural Cen­ter.”

But af­ter­ward, Harsh was plagued with doubts about her ac­com­plish­ments. On the eve of re­tire­ment she wrote: “Af­ter 26 years and hav­ing at­tempted dur­ing that pe­riod to ‘Sell’ our li­brary ser­vices to the com­mu­nity, new projects, ideas and pro­grams for im­prove­ment of our ser­vices in 1958 are not forth-com­ing.”

Two years later, she died de­spon­dent.

Three decades later, a Tri­bune re­porter vis­it­ing her li­brary met Ear­line Myles, who bore wit­ness to Harsh’s faith in the power of ed­u­ca­tion to turn lives around.

A dropout, Myles had gone back to high school and, while work­ing on a class as­sign­ment, came across a book by Langston Hughes. It in­spired her to write a poem about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She en­tered it in a Black His­tory Month con­test and was in­vited to the fi­nals in Colum­bus, Ohio. “I didn’t have the money to go,” she said, “but would you like to hear a bit of my poem?”

There was a king

Who used to sing

We will be free!

Let free­dom ring!


A copy of an un­dated photo of Vi­vian Harsh, who was the city’s first black li­brar­ian.


Doc­u­ments and mem­o­ra­bilia re­lated to Vi­vian Harsh, Chicago’s first black li­brar­ian, are kept at the Carter G. Wood­son Re­gional Li­brary in Chicago. A book by Langston Hughes and a re­view by Harsh are seen on Fri­day.

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