Christine Wigfall Morris and Barbara Sorey

March 16, 2011


Christine Wigfall Morris, affectionately known as Miss Chris, was hired by the City of Clearwater, Florida, in July 1949 as its first African-American librarian. Prior to working for the city, she had never been inside a public library because local segregation practices did not encourage African Americans to visit one. Now at 88, she has recapped her lifelong Florida history and her 33-year career as a librarian in Christine Wigfall Morris: Stories of Family, Community, and History (PublishAmerica, 2010), cowritten with local author Barbara Sorey. Morris helped to spearhead the opening of the facility designated as the Negro Library in April 1950, located in a storefront. An innovator even then in terms of library services, Morris implemented a voter registration program, began a tutorial program for residents preparing for high school equivalency exams, and started a summer program for children featuring storytelling, movies, and puppet shows.

American Libraries: Why did you decide to write this book?
CHRISTINE WIGFALL MORRIS: I had so much to put into the book and not all of it is in there. I also thought that it would be nice for other people to learn about the family and its history in the community.

Was there a controversy when you were hired by Clearwater in 1949?
Before I was hired, Afro Americans or blacks could not go into the main library. You could take books back for some of the families, but there was no place for us to go. That was the reason why a number of concerned citizens went to the city commissioners.

What about the reaction from the staff?
Some liked it and some did not. They had heard so much about Afro Americans. They wanted to feel my hair to see if it was kinky. There were certain things that they had read about Afro Americans, blacks, or Negroes that wasn’t true.

What role did you play in the opening of the Negro Library in 1950?
I was everything: the sweeper, the keeper, the book checker, and the storyteller. And it was a joy to know that I could hold my head up and do some of these things.

How important was your role in using the library as a place for voter registration, tutoring, and summer programs?
It was very important because it involved the whole community. We would host festivals and involve children from other cities. My two great-nieces started the program, and it really shone the limelight on the city of Clearwater.

How do you feel about the naming of the collection in your honor?
I feel good about it, though several people have said that it should have been the library that was named in honor of me. But the city commissioners said that I had to be dead. It gives me more honor to see the collection than to be dead and not see the library.

What is in the collection?
Information about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Afro-American cookbooks, spirituals, pictures, and CDs.

What are some of your favorite sections in the book?
I don’t have any favorite parts; all of it is good. What really impressed me about the book was to see the pictures of my family and my high school classmates, and to know that I have served all these years under so many presidents.

What advice would you give young people of color about a career in librarianship?
The library gives you so many sources that you can use: books on history, English books, and children’s books. I have one young lady, now living in Illinois, who said that I was one of the people who influenced her to go into library science. She was very impressed. And I know a couple other ladies who are in library science who have said that I pushed them into that, to see what the world is all about and to meet different people.

Why should people read your book and what will they gain?
I’ve had good reviews. And most of the people have enjoyed the book. Some said they would have never known anything about my life, about the city of Clearwater, or about what happened some 30-odd years ago when I was in the library. The book has been reprinted for the third time.

How was it writing this book with Miss Chris?
It was a pleasure. I had invited Miss Chris to a women’s history program at the Dundee Library. There was a book signing for my second book Florida Girl and afterwards I said to Miss Chris, “Miss Chris, do you want me to write your story?” She said yes! And I said okay. We got started in March 2008 meeting once a week at her home and we’d record her story. We gained a new friendship. It’s like she’s my mother, and I just love her.

Tell me a little bit about you.
I was born and raised in Clearwater. I really didn’t start writing until 1999. It’s been a long journey. I wrote and published my first book Know Where You’re Going? You Gotta Know Where You Been! which includes stories of growing up in Clearwater, basically as something for my family. I researched my second book, Florida Girl: Short Stories of Family, Community, and History, 1804–1969, by going into our main library and looking for any kind of articles on African Americans. I knew there were many outstanding African-American policemen and nurses in the community, but when I went into the Clearwater library system to look for something, there was nothing. I was floored; it’s like we were an invisible people.

It was just wonderful writing Miss Chris’s stories and finishing this book. When the Negro Library first opened, there weren’t any books. All of them had to be donated by the main library downtown and by people from the community. The same building that housed the library is still standing, but now it’s a children’s Head Start facility.