The Western Branch Library: a Beacon of Hope for Louisville’s Black Community

“The library does more than furnish facts and circulate books…the people feel that the library belongs to them, and that it may be used for anything that makes for their welfare.”

 -Rev. Thomas Fountain Blue, the Western Branch’s first librarian

For centuries, libraries have served as a space for self-enlightenment, a place where people can cultivate thought and ideas and share this in community with others. There was a time, however, when this access to knowledge was not attainable to everyone. Despite the 13th and 14th amendments granting Black Americans freedom following the Civil War, opportunities for Black self-enlightenment were slim to none during this time period, especially in Kentucky.

In 1905, a beacon of hope for Black thought and ideas was established in Louisville. Sitting just a block west of the 9th Street Divide on Chestnut Street, the Louisville Western Branch Library was the first library in the country to exclusively serve and be fully operated by Black Louisvillians and is one of the nine original libraries funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Through the Western branch and its resources, previously educationally marginalized Black citizens in Louisville gained tools and resources for learning unlike they’d ever had access to before. 

As literacy rates climbed steadily amongst Black Americans following emancipation, Black desire for scholastic fulfillment and the fight for equality in access to education was at an all-time high. In fact, many Black Kentuckians, particularly those in Louisville, were among the leaders at the forefront of the national struggle for this equality when the Kentucky State Legislature passed legislation in 1902 that created the Louisville Free Public Library. At the time, the proposal for the LFPL branches was intended only for white Louisvillians, and this legislation made no mention of offering any such services to Black citizens in the community who also desperately wanted them. 

As a result, a growing population of Black readers in Louisville worked to challenge city officials in hopes of creating an additional branch of the library that would be fully operated by and exclusively serve Black Louisvillians. At the forefront of this movement was the then-principal of Central High School, Albert Meyzeek, who was concerned about Black student literacy rates and access to adequate reading materials at his school. As a result, Meyzeek began taking his students to the Polytechnic Society Library downtown, where after a few visits, he and his students were denied access to their services because of the color of their skin. Enraged by the lack of adequate library access for Black Louisvillians, Meyzeek began attending the City Library Committee meetings where he passionately and persistently argued that an additional branch of the newly-proposed Louisville Free Public Library must be created to serve the Black community. Meyzeek’s advocacy was successful, and the Western branch was soon established.

In late 1905, the Western branch first opened as a three-room apartment on West Walnut Street in the heart of Louisville’s predominantly Black West End district. The library saw huge success initially as there was significant pent-up educational demand from the Black community there. Within just three months of its opening, reports indicated 4,132 people had visited and 1,545 books were borrowed. However, it wasn’t long before the staff at the Western branch became overwhelmed by the high community interest in the library and its services, and administrators decided to expand capacity and relocate. Through Andrew Carnegie’s generous donations and support, in 1908 the Western Branch was able to move into a new building at the corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets, where it still sits today. 

Thomas Fountain Blue was selected to serve as the Western branch’s first librarian. Blue’s impact on the Black community in Louisville during his time as a librarian cannot be overstated. As the first librarian at the nation’s only library serving Black citizens, Blue knew the importance of the role he was about to fill. Like Meyzeek, Blue believed education through schools and libraries offered the most effective means for social uplift in the Black community. In his tenure, Blue emphasized not only educating Black Louisvillians and providing them with the highest-quality library resources, but he also made a point to work for Black inclusion into broader American society. Blue focused on making the Western branch a space for fostering racial progress through its books, reference materials, community spaces, and a number of other initiatives. 

Thomas Blue and staff of the Western branch library, 1927. Photo: UofL Archives.

Working from the philosophical framework of intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Blue built a collection of books concerning Black events, culture, and history written by Black authors. Blue also initiated an apprenticeship course for Black citizens wishing to enter the library field that lasted until the 1930s. Before the Hampton Institute opened their library school, this training course at the Western branch was the first of its kind in the emerging field of library science and trained dozens of Black Americans–particularly women– from all across the South.

Seven women serve apprenticeships at the Western Branch preparing for library service. Three from Louisville and one each from Houston, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Evansville, Indiana. Photo: UofL Archives.

Another one of Blue’s primary initiatives was to increase literacy rates amongst Black youth and cultivate a pool of young Black readers. With the help of another Western branch supervisor, Rachel Harris, Blue organized a Children’s Department that hosted reading clubs, storytime, debate, and other entertaining events for Louisville’s Black children. In addition, Black poet and educator, Joseph Cotter, sponsored a children’s storytelling contest every year where winners would receive cash awards and statewide and national recognition. The Cotter Cup is still in place today.

In 1909, Blue created the Douglass Debating Club for high school boys. This debate club served as a program to acquaint Black male youth in Louisville with public speaking, contemporary topics in politics, parliamentary procedure, and how to prepare an oral argument. The club met weekly at the Western branch and participated in a debate contest in Louisville annually. Some of the subjects the Douglass club debated included suffrage rights for women, whether Abraham Lincoln was a greater American than George Washington, and if Germany was justified in taking up arms against the Allies. Often, the Black male youth that participated in the Douglass Debate Club went on to enroll in prestigious universities throughout the country and see great success.

Douglass Debate Club, 1914. Photo: Louisville Free Public Library.

In 2012, the Western branch underwent major renovations to include the African-American Archives Reading Room, which houses the historical papers of Thomas Fountain Blue and Joseph Cotter, as well as an extensive collection of material focusing on the Black experience in America. Today, the Western Branch Library still stands on the corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets as a testament to Albert Meyzeek, Thomas Fountain Blue, and all the other Black patrons who have utilized its services in search of self-enlightenment, an equal opportunity for education, and a sense of community. The Western branch then offered — and still continues to offer today– Black Louisvillians a year-round place to learn and grow. And for that, it should be honored.

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