CHICAGO’S MOTHER OF BLACK HISTORY
Vivian Harsh, the city’s first black librarian, collected essential books about African American experience
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.