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History of Blyden Branch

History of Blyden Branch Library

Langston Hughes in his poem Dream Deferred asked the question What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? For a group of Negro citizens in Norfolk in 1921, that was not going to happen. In this era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, this group was determined to establish a library to serve the Negro community. That library became Blyden Branch Library.The history of Blyden is intertwined with the societal norms that existed from its beginning to the present day. Prior to 1921, the City of Norfolk did not provide library service of any kind for its Negro citizens. In contrast, the first free public school for Negroes was opened in 1863.

The following year, the Union Army ordered that all white children vacate their schools. They were to be turned over for use by Negro children. Once the Civil War ended, however, all the schools were returned to the whites, leaving the Negro children without any schools. Not until 1867, when the American Missionary Society offered its assistance, was a school system reestablished for Negro children.

Seeing the need for additional schools for Negro children, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church founded the Norfolk Mission College for Negro students in 1883. At that time, the city had a policy which stipulated that no more than two children from any one family of any race could attend public school. Mission College offered high school level courses which were not previously offered to Negro students.

The College was built on the present spot where Blyden now stands. The Norfolk School Board purchased it in 1916 and relocated the John T. West High School to its site. West was renamed Booker T. Washington High School. It was a sad day in November 1955 for many alumni of the old Mission College when the demolition of it began.

By 1921, the Negro population of Virginia was approximately 700,000. Other than small collections of books in some of the larger Negro schools, churches, fraternal societies and the YMCA, there was not a single public library in the state providing service to Negroes. Given this situation, Negro citizens began a persistent campaign to get the Norfolk Public Library to supply books to their community.

The library responded to their request by proposing that the colored YMCA on Queen Street house books sent from the main library. C. C. Dogan, who was Secretary of the YMCA, in turn proposed that the library build a branch to serve the Negro community. That idea was approved and the city allocated $1,700.00 to establish the branch.

On July 19, 1921, Blyden Branch Library opened in two rooms of Dunbar Elementary School. Dunbar and Booker T. Washington shared the buildings on the former Mission College site. The branch was named for Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, a Presbyterian minister, college president, Secretary of State of Liberia, and a rights activist. Mrs. Jessie E. Moone was appointed its first librarian.

For 16 years, the Negro community labored under the constraints of its two-room facility. A reporter for the Norfolk Journal and Guide in 1931 reported that he "had visited the branch several afternoons and sometimes found 50 children crowded into a space that could only accommodate 25 to 30 people." Due to its small size, the branch was not as heavily used as expected. To alleviate this condition, the city in 1937 appropriated funds to relocate the branch to 1346 Church Street and Johnson Avenue. One year later, it was moved to its new quarters. Mrs. Moone remained branch manager until her retirement in 1950. Verna Cotton replaced her and Armitta Bell remained as assistant librarian.

Lucy T. Johnson followed Ms. Cotton. the year she started is not clear, but she was listed as branch manager in a November 1953 article in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. Three years after the appearance of this article, the Norfolk Mission College Alumni Association suggested to the city council that the former Mission College site be considered for a branch library and park. Their suggestion was accepted and with an appropriation of $60,000, planning for the new Blyden began. On June 24, 1957, the present building opened its doors to serve the African American community.

After Lucy Johnson left, Dessie Curtis was appointed branch head. She served until 1967 when Shirley Johnson assumed leadership of the branch. She served throughout the Model Cities program and the transformation of the neighborhoods surrounding the branch. Those were difficult days for the branch because of the demolition of housing and the resultant loss of people using the branch. Mrs. Johnson retired in 1989 and Sheriden Clem became branch head on January 1, 1990. By then, the neighborhoods were gradually showing signs of rebirth, but the branch was still struggling with inadequate funding and building problems.

In June 1990, the present head librarian, Dudley Colbert, was appointed. Thanks to funding from the state of Virginia, new housing developments were built surrounding the branch. Families in those developments, along with the existing developments at Calvert Square, Tidewater Gardens, Young Terrace and the many other neighborhoods making up Huntersville, provided the spark for the rebirth of the branch during the 1990's. Thanks to the many thousands of people who have walked through its doors and the staffs who worked diligently to keep it afloat, the dream of its original founders lives on.