One Man’s Library Education and the "Double V"
A Dutch author wrote to Ask NYPL, the ready reference division of The New York Public Library, with a request for information about a woman (only identified as “Mrs. Merrill”) who may have been a staff member of the NYPL on Staten Island in the 1940s. Mrs. Merrill had been instrumental in encouraging the educational interests of the subject of her book, Jeff Wiggins, an African-American member of the (segregated) U.S. Army in World War II, who had been deployed in the Netherlands near where her family lived.
Jefferson Wiggins was born in 1925 in Houston County, Alabama where he had almost no formal education in the schools he attended as a child. One can search the “World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946” in the databases of the National Archives and find that Wiggins was enlisted in the U.S. Army in Alabama in 1942 where the enlistment record describes him as a “Negro,” a “U.S. Citizen” and as having had a “grammar school” education. Soon the Army would send Wiggins to Staten Island which during World War II was home to several vast Army installations and one of the principal embarkation points for the European Theater.
While stationed on Staten Island, Wiggins was able for the first time to make use of the Stapleton Branch of the NYPL—something that had not been possible for him in Alabama. Wiggins was clearly a man destined for distinction. He was one of the very few African-Americans made an officer (Second Lieutenant) during World War II and ultimately received a doctorate, became a respected educator and authored two books.
Wiggins profited while stationed in Staten Island from the interest of a truly dedicated NYPL staff member that he would recall in both his book on racial turmoil in the American college and his memoirs decades later: the “Mrs. Merrill” the author inquired about. In addition to providing Wiggins with a love of books and learning while he was stationed in Staten Island, Anne Marie Merrill sent Wiggins more reading material and even college catalogs after he was shipped to Europe. In fact, after Wiggins was mustered out of the U.S. Army in 1946, he returned to New York City where he stayed at the renowned Hotel Theresa in Harlem (as many of the “downtown” Manhattan hotels were as segregated in the 1940s as the Alabama Wiggins had left.) One night in 1946, Wiggins came back to Staten Island to have dinner with his old friend, and she reminded him that the G.I. Bill of Rights would pay a portion of a veteran’s tuition should he enroll in college. Wiggins pointed out that at the time he lacked even a high school diploma. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Merrill wrote a petition to his home town in Alabama attesting to his level of academic accomplishment, his rise in the U.S. Army from Private to First Lieutenant and his level of intellectual aptitude and he was granted a high school equivalency certificate. Shortly thereafter, Wiggins enrolled in Tennessee State University and would go on to a prominent career as an academic, author and one who would promote civil rights and the stress the value of diversity throughout his career.
The NYPL keeps excellent records of its affairs. Each issue of the "Staff News" of the NYPL for the War years is held in the Milstein Division of U.S History, Local History and Genealogy. The Annual Reports of the NYPL are held in the General Research Division for all the World War II years. And one can also review each of the Stapleton Library’s Annual Reports (manually typewritten) held in the Manuscripts and Archives Division. In these various reports, no "Mrs. Merrill" was never mentioned—as a librarian—who worked at the Stapleton Branch during that period.
However, in the wartime Annual Reports, the Stapleton Branch Manager noted that, as the closest branch, it had to serve two enormous military facilities (since closed) that were very active during World War II. One was Fort Wadsworth that housed thousands of United States military men (including Jeff Wiggins) and the other was the Fox Hills Cantonment (that was a base of the Woman's Army Core (“WAC”) as well as the New York Port of Embarkation for the United States Army (from which Jeff Wiggins shipped out.) One can get a sense of the importance of Staten Island during World War II by a review of The Staten Island Advance and the Staten Island Telephone Directories both of which are available in the Microforms Reading Room of the NYPL.
Interestingly, the Stapleton Branch Manager wrote in 1945:
[T]he Branch felt keenly the demand as long as troops in great numbers were stationed here... At the same time, several members of the WAC, stationed at Fox Hills, were working on a more elementary level with barely literate colored troops who were stationed there. In addition, we were able to provide several books on adult elementary education for one staff member who wanted to provide an even broader background than she found in any of the elementary materials and worked particularly closely with these men.
I think it highly likely that Anne Marie Merrill was the staff member of the Stapleton branch that helped Jeff Wiggins, while temporarily stationed on Staten Island, to discover the inner resources within himself that enabled him to become an educator, author of two books, and advocate of civil rights and diversity and who in his later years would help African-Americans achieve the “Double V” sought during World War II: victory over fascism abroad and over segregation at home. And what better reflects how a committed library staff worker can have an effect on the larger social issues of our time.