The Tougaloo Nine Remembered

A Civil Rights pioneer recalls the 1961 read-in in Jackson, Mississippi

June 26, 2017

Geraldine Edwards Hollis of the Tougaloo Nine with attorney and artist Michael Crowell
Geraldine Edwards Hollis of the Tougaloo Nine with attorney and artist Michael Crowell

Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of nine young African American students at the historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi who were arrested for entering the whites-only public library in Jackson on March 27, 1961. In a Sunday program titled “Desegregating Public Libraries,” Hollis told what happened that day, when they requested books not held by the “colored” branch of the library and were arrested by police because they did not belong there. A local newspaper called the read-in the “first move to integrate public facilities in Jackson.” (See Wayne Wiegand’s summary of the incident in the June issue of American Libraries.)

Hollis was treated to the screening of recently discovered footage at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History showing the read-in and the arrests. The video shows her talking to a library assistant in the Jackson Municipal Library. “I went to the desk very confidently,” Hollis said, “and asked for a specific book. I let her know that I had already done the research and I could not get the book at the black library.” The assistant told the students that they did not belong there. Hollis said, “We had heard that all our lives. But we felt that we belonged wherever we wanted to be.”

Still from news footage from the 1961 read-in at the Jackson Municipal Library. Geraldine Edwards talks with the library assistant.

There were actually 16 students who were part of the incident, Hollis said: “The other seven did not go into the library, but they served as lookouts for cars and police and to tell us when the coast was clear. They were just as brave as we were, but we were the ones who got arrested.” About 50 student volunteers at Tougaloo originally went to meetings beforehand. “We went through training based on what we could expect to encounter,” Hollis said. “We knew from the news that we might be subjected to beatings, dogs, billy clubs, even death. We rehearsed getting harassed with vulgar words, taunts, and violent movements to see which of us could hold up under stress. Not everyone could do that.”

“We knew exactly what we were doing,” Hollis said, “and we all looked confident. However, I found out at the 45th anniversary of the read-in that one of the other students had sat down with a book and was reading it upside down.”

“The police were already there, so someone must have tipped them off,” Hollis said. “The media knew we would be there. Others were in charge of contacting the newspapers behind the scenes. We did not want to go in without media coverage as insurance. If they had not been there, the correct news would never have gotten out.”

“After we were arrested, we had no right to call a lawyer,” Hollis said. “We were put in individual holding tanks and questioned separately.” The students were all NAACP Youth Council members, but when the police asked them if Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi who would be murdered in Jackson in 1963, had put them up to this, they said they were “doing it on our own.” Hollis said the jail was a “horrendous place. I’ve never been to jail since. The police used mind-bending techniques. They wanted to get into our heads, but we wouldn’t let them. They held us for about 30 hours, but it seemed much longer than that.”

Chapel Hill (N.C.) Public Library Banned Books Week trading card created by Mississippi artist Michael Crowell, showing Geraldine Edwards Hollis based on her police mug shot.

“Afterwards,” Hollis said, “the community came out to support us. Some Jackson State University students protested our arrest because we had not hurt anyone and we were just asking for our civil rights. Several students made some comments to the police, and that’s when they released the dogs and were beaten. What we did didn’t really make the national news. It was the violence that happened afterwards.” Hollis has written a book about her life, Back to Mississippi (Xlibris, 2011), which includes a detailed chapter on the Tougaloo Nine.

Also present at the program were Susan H. Brown, director of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Public Library, and Mississippi attorney and artist Michael Crowell, who created a portrait of Hollis for a Banned Books Week trading card published by the library in 2016, which won a Special Jury Prize because it depicted a banned person rather than a book.

The Jackson public library was desegregated about one year later, according to historian Wayne A. Wiegand, who was in the audience. He said that the officials decided to give up on leaving the library segregated in order to focus more on preventing the schools from being integrated.

Also in the audience was Patty Furr, current director of the Jackson Hinds Library System, who said that the library would be dedicating a plaque on August 17 to be placed on the former library building where the read-in occurred.