This History of Public Library Service in Durham, 1897-1997 by Jessica Harland-Jacobs

Bringing Culture to Durham

The Durham Public Library was incorporated by an act of the North Carolina General Assembly on March 5, 1897.

This statute marked the culmination of a drive begun in Durham in 1895, which in turn reflected a wider movement to encourage culture and refinement in a town characterized primarily by dusty factories and raw saloons. The town of Durham had been in existence since 1852 when Dr. Bartlett Durham donated four acres of land to the North Carolina Railway for a station; the town was incorporated in 1869, but the county had been established only in 1881. The carving out of Durham County from the long-established counties of Orange and Wake was the result of a post-war economic and population boom, traceable to the remarkable success of Durham's tobacco industry from the 1870s. This young county rapidly found its place at the forefront of the processes that would make North Carolina the most industrialized Southern state by 1920.[1]

Carrington's Bar
S.R. Carrington's Bar, circa 1880.

Among those who enjoyed the prosperity of towns like Durham at the turn of the twentieth century were significant numbers of African Americans who moved to urban areas to engage in skilled crafts, such as blacksmithing and carpentry, and find employment in the burgeoning tobacco industry. At this time, the majority of North Carolina's black population, most of whom were freed slaves, remained on the land as sharecroppers and endured disadvantages and hardships that made the sweet expectation of freedom from slavery a bittersweet reality. But although whites maintained political power and severe racial inequalities persisted, towns like Durham afforded space for African Americans to thrive. In the decades after the Civil War, Durham gave rise to a prosperous black district--Hayti--where African American entrepreneurs launched businesses and community leaders nurtured institutions, such as churches and Masonic lodges. Durham's prominent white businessmen, through occasional investments and their willingness not to interfere, encouraged black enterprise. But the initiative, hard work, and most of the funds came from within the community itself. In time, Durham became a special seedbed for black capitalism. [2] Recognizing Durham's distinctiveness in this regard, historian W. E. B. Dubois remarked in 1920 that Hayti's social and economic development is perhaps more striking than that of any similar group in the nation. [3]

The origins of Durham's first library movement are found in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when Durham was a rough, down-to-business town of between five and six thousand inhabitants. Its citizens' efforts to this point had been concentrated on industrial manufacture and profit making, but its most prominent white businessmen-- Washington Duke and his sons, Julian Carr, and others--began to think that Durham should turn some of its attention to cultivating education and the arts. In Durham, according to historian Jean Anderson, the tobacco magnates were to supply the vision, the leadership, and the particular character of the social superstructure, which they would underpin with substantial funding. [4]

The first aspect of their vision was luring an institution of higher learning to Durham. Town leaders initially tried to bring a female Baptist seminary to Durham, but the commission set up to find a home for the institution rejected Durham on the grounds that the town was culturally an unfit place in which to risk the lives of young women during their formative years. [5] Then, in 1892, Durham's magnates, coordinating their efforts to outbid Raleigh, secured Trinity College, a small Methodist college seeking to relocate from Randolph County. The next addition to Durham's cultural and educational landmarks in this era was the Southern Conservatory of Music founded by Gilmore Ward Bryant in 1898.[6]

While the college and the music school laid the groundwork for a more cultured, progressive Durham, there remained a feeling that the city lacked an institution that could serve the public as a whole. This need found expression in the discussions of Durham's literary clubs. Among a number of clubs which met for debates and literary conversation during the 1880s, the Canterbury Club and the Shakespeare Club were unique in that they included both college professors and citizens, men and women. Literary clubs provided women, confined for the most part to the domestic sphere, with a forum for the expression of their ideas and opinions. Since politics were off limits, the women used the structure provided by the social clubs to take the lead in encouraging Durham's cultural development and overall improvement. From these clubs, and the Canterbury Club in particular, emerged the inspiration and commitment for a public library.[7]

During a meeting in June Of 1895 the Canterbury Club debated the question of how its members could contribute to the development of their young city. Edwin Mims, Professor of English at Trinity College since 1894, offered the idea of a public library. Mims' involvement with the movement to establish a public library in Durham reflected a reality that would be evident throughout the library's history: although individuals associated with Trinity College, and later Duke University, donated their time and energy to encouraging public library services in the town, the institution itself did not offer substantive support. In any case, Mims' proposal found support among the members of the Canterbury Club as well as another of Durham's debating societies, the Social Science Club. For the idea to become a reality, they had to convince both the reading population and at least one deep-pocketed magnate. The way to both was through Lalla Ruth Carr.

Like other organizations of its nature, the Canterbury Club drew its membership from Durham's leading and wealthiest citizens, most notably in this case the Carr family. Lalla Ruth Carr belonged to the club, supported the concept of a public library, and sold the idea to her father, Julian Carr. By 1896, Carr had become an extremely successful industrialist who spread his patronage widely. The son of a Chapel Hill merchant, Carr was co-owner of the W. T. Blackwell firm, manufacturer of Bull Durham tobacco--the nation's most popular tobacco since 1883.[8]

Carr was known around Durham as General Carr for his position in the Confederate Veterans of America; he had served as a private in the Civil War. He enjoyed high fashion, usually in his case taking the form of striped trousers and a cutaway coat, and loved the spending, as well as the making, of money. Churches and Trinity College had benefited from Carr's largesse, so it was logical that he would be a prime candidate for the position of library benefactor. Carr's support for the public library was the result of his concern for Durham's reputation; he had been stung by the Baptists' assessment that his town was treacherous for young women. We cannot flatter ourselves, proclaimed Carr, that we approach the full measure of what we ought to be as a Christian community until we can boast of a public library. [9]

Five Points
Five Points looking west, circa 1916. Original Building of Durham County Library is in the center.

Upon his daughter's urging and in her name, Carr offered a lot worth $2500 on the east side of Five Points, the city's central node and termination of one of the streetcar lines. Thomas H. Martin, a tobacco broker, gave a portion of his adjacent lot worth $500. Carr announced the gift to the community at a meeting of interested citizens organized by Lalla Carr and held on April 30, 1896 at the courthouse. Led by Mims and the Reverend L. B. Turnbull, this meeting resulted in the raising of $4318 from the citizens for a building and the selection of a committee to seek a charter from the legislature. The Board of Aldermen had already indicated its support on April 20 when it agreed to co-operate in the maintenance and support of the enterprise. [10]

In early May, the Board of Trustees was organized, elected officers and, with General Carr in command, set about drafting a constitution, adopting by-laws and planning the construction of the building.[11] The Board chose Charles Read of Richmond, Virginia, as architect and Ben R. Houston as contractor. Additional contributions had been received from the faculty of the Durham Graded School, the employees at Southern Railway, and professors at Trinity College. Despite these donations the trustees quickly discovered that funds were insufficient to proceed with construction. As was the case in so many other communities around the country in this period, it was the women of the town to whom they could turn for fundraising and most of the groundwork. Concerned about improving Durham's physical and moral condition, the women immediately organized themselves into the Ladies' Auxiliary, from which emerged a twelve-member Board of Lady Managers. They divided Durham into six districts, set out in groups of two, and went from house to house. >From this vantage point, the women reported that nearly every one was enthusiastic over the idea of a Free Public Library, and all were anxious to see the movement a success. [12] They had raised an additional $1,573.75.

Original Library Sketch
The Original Public Library, 1920s

In March 1897 the General Assembly of North Carolina granted Carr and eleven other men the right to establish, conduct and maintain a public library in the town of Durham, for the use and benefit of the people thereof and authorized the town to contribute money to the corporation.[13] In a move reflecting the competition between the state's capital and upstart Durham, the General Assembly passed an act to incorporate the Raleigh Library on the same day but Durham beat Raleigh to the punch.[14] Within six months, the architectural and construction plans were completed and the Board of Aldermen approved the construction of a wooden building. In January 1898 Carr appeared before the Board of Aldermen and promised them that the public library would be a potent factor for good and assured town leaders that its location was very convenient. Also speaking before the aldermen, the Reverend W. C. Tyree predicted that the movement now about to be brought to fruition will serve as a stimulus to other towns in the State and the action of this Board in fostering this enterprise would influence successive boards to like movements on moral lines. [15]

Durham's Public Library opened on February 10, 1898. The Durham Daily Sun reported that an enthusiastic gathering of all classes of our people had assembled to witness the opening. Between six and seven hundred Durhamites inspected with pride the handsome exterior, the eight alcoves housing books in the main hall, and the separate men's and women's reading rooms. Lalla Ruth Carr and Thomas Martin received credit for donating the centrally located lot. With an extensive musical program enhancing the genteel atmosphere, James Southgate offered a congratulatory address. In its report, the paper boasted: It was a great occasion and will go down in history as one of the most pleasing events of progressive Durham. [16]

The timing of the Durham Public Library's founding was significant. Public libraries were few and far between in the poor, overwhelmingly rural, and largely illiterate communities of the South at the turn of the century. Durham's citizens founded a library prior to the establishment of the North Carolina Library Association and without assistance from national philanthropic organizations. A unique combination of people and circumstances-- interaction between the community and professors at Trinity College, economic prosperity and expansion of the middle class, growing civic pride, and the individual initiative of people like Mims and Carr -- had come together in 1890s Durham.

Had the library been established after the turn of the century, when public library development mushroomed in the Southeast, it would have been much less remarkable. Indeed, progressive Durham was on the vanguard of a wider shift in opinions about the role of libraries in society. For most of the nineteenth century libraries were viewed as sanctuaries of knowledge and storehouses of treasured volumes. Those who had access to libraries generally paid annual fees or were admitted into private libraries of wealthy benefactors. With closed stacks and strict admission policies, large municipal libraries carefully guarded their books for perusal by a privileged few. But with the beginning of the Progressive era in the 1890s--exemplified by the Carnegie library movement--libraries came to be seen as integral components of democratic culture. Andrew Carnegie, who started building libraries in 1898, viewed the public library not as a sanctuary but as a medium to effect public uplift. The Durham community would eventually benefit from Carnegie's philanthropy, but it had established its public library on its own initiative and with its own resources.[17]

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