Boston Public Library Foundation

Personal Stories from the Civil Rights Movement: A Librarian’s Experience

by Alison Murphy

Librarian Laura Foner, middle, laughs with fellow SNCC organizers

Last Monday, as part of their ongoing celebration of Women’s History Month, the Connolly branch featured librarian Laura Foner, who spoke about her experiences as an organizer for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Ms. Foner served in the Arkansas chapter of SNCC from 1965 to 1966. Of her experience in the small southeastern town of Gould, Ms. Foner said, “I had heard about rural poverty, but I had not seen it. I was shocked and appalled that people were living this way in the 1960s.” Foner was the only white woman working with SNCC in Gould. “Being a white woman on the black side of town was dangerous for me and for them,” she said. “But we decided it was worth it.” Unable to go out after dark or be seen riding in cars with fellow black organizers, Foner coordinated the SNCC headquarters. Among other things, that included starting a library. “The children were thrilled,” she said of the library. “They had never before had access to free books, and they had never seen books written by black authors.” Children came by after school to read, play games, and sing freedom songs, which opened and closed every SNCC meeting. “Music was a huge part of the movement,” Foner said. “It kept spirits up.”

Certainly, there was much need for hope in Gould. On January 11th, 1967, the house that functioned as the SNCC headquarters was burned to the ground. “Every book in the library was lost,” Foner said. No one was ever charged in the arson. Of the fire and the other difficult events of the 1960s, Foner quoted Frederick Douglass: “’If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ That’s as true today as it was in 1965, or 1865.”

Foner drew parallels between her first job as a librarian and her current role: “When I was making the decision [to become a librarian], I realized the first time I ever worked at a library was in Gould.” When asked how her activism had affected her career choices, she cited the library’s central role in the community as one of the primary reasons for her decision to become a full-time librarian at 50 years old. “It’s the perfect place for an organizer,” she said. “I believe that public libraries are crucial in the fight to preserve public spaces. It’s about saying this is ours, as people who are members of this society. We need to fight for and preserve our public spaces, and libraries are part of that. They’re a place that is free for everybody – you don’t have to have a lot of money, or speak the language, you can be any age, any size – all the resources are here for you. To me that is a really important model. It’s really great in a society where ‘my-my-my’ thinking is so primary to show kids that libraries are a place where we share.”

The Connolly branch’s celebration of Women’s History Month has featured a different event every Monday night in March. Their closing event will be Family Story Time tonight at 6:30PM (Connolly Branch, 433 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130, 617-522-1960).


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