Separate—and Unequal

Carrie C. Robinson’s story of challenging racism still resonates

October 6, 2020

Carrie C. Robinson
Carrie C. Robinson

Fifty years ago this week, Carrie C. Robinson—a Black school librarian whose long career revealed much about the Jim Crow South, the challenges of integration, and librarianship in the civil rights era—settled a landmark case for racial justice in the profession. After being passed over for a promotion, she had sued her employer, Alabama’s Department of Education. That case, as well as the trajectory of Robinson’s career, sheds light on a critical period in American history, one with lingering effects on diversity and representation in the library field.

Born in Mississippi in 1906, Robinson began her career as a librarian serving Black schools in South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana before settling in Alabama, where she initially worked for Alabama State College as an assistant professor of library education. In 1947, she helped organize a librarian section of the Alabama State Teachers Association, a section that later evolved into the Alabama Association of School Librarians (both Black-led; at the time, the Alabama Library Association excluded Black members).

In 1962, Robinson was hired as “Negro school library supervisor” for the state of Alabama, in which role she witnessed how the white politicians and educators who ran the system impeded racial progress. “Any Black librarian in a leadership role has lessons to learn, one of which is always to keep his [sic] guard up,” she later wrote in an essay in E. J. Josey’s 1970 volume The Black Librarian in America. “In all too many instances [Black librarians] have been placed in subordinate positions to white librarians who are less competent, or in schools where effective library programs are nonexistent.” The cost was great: “My professional growth and, in my opinion, some talent, have been stymied on both the local and national levels simply because I am Black.”

When, in 1966, federal funds were made available to the states to improve secondary school libraries through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Alabama’s Department of Education drew up a list of qualified candidates to administer those funds and eventually appointed a white librarian to the post. Robinson’s name was not on that list. Examiners later found that department officials routinely failed to advertise to and recruit Black professionals. Although better qualified than the white hire, Robinson was appointed to a lower-ranking position supervising elementary school libraries.

On May 14, 1969, she filed a complaint in the US District Court, alleging that she had been denied equal protection as a department employee because of her race. After receiving an unsatisfactory response, on December 23 the National Education Association (NEA) and the Alabama State Teachers Association filed a class action suit against the department on Robinson’s behalf. NEA’s Du Shane Emergency Fund paid the legal fees. It was the first time NEA filed a racial discrimination suit against a state department of education, and the only time it supported a school librarian.

Although Robinson’s suit received little attention in the library press (including American Libraries), E. J. Josey—a Black New York State Library employee and well-known civil rights activist within the American Library Association (ALA)—joined a white colleague to ask the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) to file an amicus brief on Robinson’s behalf (at the time Robinson was an AASL board member and a second-term ALA Councilor at Large).

The NEA suit was “a positive step toward both the eradication of racism and the defense of members of our profession,” they wrote to then–AASL President John Rowell in January 1970. ALA and AASL involvement “would immeasurably strengthen it as well as offering tangible evidence to the members of both associations and to the profession as a whole that we are seriously committed to democratic principles.”

In the previous decade, ALA had chosen not to file amicus briefs in any of the court cases brought by Black Southerners who had been denied access to segregated public libraries. Similarly, across my research I have found no evidence of ALA, its Office for Intellectual Freedom, or AASL investigating race discrimination in Southern school libraries. Nor had ALA opted to censure schools in which those incidents took place. Even after an NAACP-supported 1971 investigation found that five Southern public libraries were providing bookmobile service to and sharing collections with private schools that had been deliberately established to evade integration, OIF Director Judith Krug wrote letters of inquiry to those libraries’ directors (most responded with denials). “Libraries helping other institutions evade the law are accessories,” Josey argued in School Library Journal, and ought to be censured.

Small wonder, then, that ALA and AASL chose not to file an amicus brief in the Robinson case. Instead, at the 1970 Midwinter Meeting—after a resolution commending NEA for its support of Robinson was introduced—Rowell acknowledged AASL’s association with NEA and Robinson’s role on the AASL board of directors. “With these allegiances to AASL” in mind, Rowell then identified what he called the “consensus of the AASL board” in a statement to ALA Council: “I request that it be recorded that I support the resolution that ALA commend the NEA for its action on behalf of Mrs. Carrie Robinson.” At that Midwinter Meeting, ALA also passed a resolution to censure public libraries that provided services to segregated schools.

On October 6, 1970, both parties in the Robinson case reached an agreement: Robinson was promoted to a higher-ranking role with an accompanying salary increase, while the state agreed to pay all her legal fees. After that out-of-court settlement, Robinson went on to become director of the library media program at Auburn (Ala.) University. She retired in 1975 and passed away in 2008, at age 102. Her death was not commented on by any library periodical I have encountered in all my research.

Despite fighting racism within her profession all her life, Carrie Robinson remains a hidden figure in library history in general and in school library history in particular. ALA has recently recommitted to fighting systemic racism and confronting its own racist history. But as a library historian, I contend it’s impossible for the national library community to fathom the full burden of that responsibility if such large chunks of that past—such as the experiences of Carrie Robinson—remain unknown to the present.

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