Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore was born in 1863 to free, black, land-owning parents. He established a medical practice in Durham in 1888, becoming Durham’s first African-American physician. Moore became actively involved in the economic and cultural life of Durham, pursuing numerous successful business ventures. An avid reader and a lover of books, he lamented the lack of “good, wholesome reading matter” available to the young people in Durham’s African-American community. In 1913 Moore set out to remedy this deficiency. He started a library with 799 donated books in the basement of White Rock Baptist Church, where he was superintendent of the Sunday school.
The church library met with limited success—denominational differences in the community impeded its use by all residents. Undeterred, Moore enlisted the help of his friend and business associate John Merrick. Merrick, born a slave in 1859, was the owner of a successful chain of barbershops and, along with Moore, was instrumental in establishing such landmark African-American institutions as the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (at one time the largest black-owned business in the United States) and Lincoln Hospital.
In 1916, the two men established the Durham Colored Library in a building Merrick owned at the corner of Fayetteville and Pettigrew streets. Community donations supported the library for its entire first year. In 1917 the city of Durham began granting the library a meager monthly appropriation, but the library still relied heavily on community financial support. In 1918 the library began receiving an additional appropriation from Durham County, and that same year the North Carolina General Assembly incorporated the Durham Colored Library Association.
Hattie B. Wooten was the library’s first librarian and initially its only employee. Wooten earned a salary of $40 per month and was granted living quarters above the library. Wooten worked diligently to promote the library. In 1925 she launched a three-point plan intended to increase circulation: 1) Promote the library as an institution of interest to visitors to the city, 2) Invite all community groups to have meetings in the library, and 3) Have the library placed in the Negro Yearbook. She organized popular activities for children and young adults, sometimes in cooperation with local schoolteachers. Wooten held the position of librarian until her death in 1932.
Under the guidance of Wooten and the board of trustees, the library became increasingly popular. As usage increased, it became apparent that the library was outgrowing its cramped quarters. The board had discussed the need for a new library building since the early 1920s; however, it was not until the late 1930s that they were able to make a serious effort to relocate. In 1939 the board passed a resolution to build a new library at the corner of Umstead and Fayetteville streets. The new building was financed chiefly by a $24,000 loan from North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Several individuals contributed significant amounts of money, including long-time board president Dr. Stanford Leigh Warren, who donated $4,000 to buy the land on which the library would be built. The new library, named in his honor, opened on January 17, 1940.