Catherine Latimer: The New York Public Library's First Black Librarian

By Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian
March 20, 2020
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Black New York: In 1625, eleven enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam to physically clear the land for what we now know as New York City. Some parts of New York, such as Harlem, are well-known black neighborhoods, but black people have lived in and impacted all parts of New York City for centuries. Let us take some time to explore the many areas of New York City where African Americans have lived and thrived. For this segment we are heading to Harlem, circa 1920…

On a beautiful September morning in 1921, the young poet, Langston Hughes, exited the subway at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. In 1921 Harlem was fast becoming a burgeoning mecca for black artists, writers, and performers. After making a few stops, Langston found his way to the Harlem Branch Library where, as he described, a “warm and wonderful librarian, Miss Ernestine Rose, white, made newcomers feel welcome, as did her assistant in charge of the Schomburg Collection*, Catherine Latimer, a luscious cafe au lait.” Although, only in the position one year when Langston Hughes made his observations, Catherine Latimer would go on to play a significant role in the history of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The New York Public Library as, among other things, NYPL’s first African American librarian.

135th Street Branch, 1915. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1252984

Not For Everyone—Public Libraries in the Early 20th Century

When we look back on the fight against segregation, the discussion often leads to the integration of schools; of public establishments such as restaurants and shopping areas; and public transportation. Libraries are often a side-note of the fight for equal access to public spaces. In her book, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow , Cheryl Knott explains that, “Americans tend to imagine their public libraries as time-honored advocates of equitable access to information for all. Through much of the twentieth century, however, many black Americans were denied access to public libraries or allowed admittance only to separate and smaller buildings and collections.” Similar to the previous post in the Black New Yorkseries, where black nurses just out of nursing school were not allowed to treat white patients, black librarians had a similar experience, severely limited in what type of patronage they could serve and institutions they could be a part of.

Black New York

In the very beginning of the 20th century, ca. 1900, around 10,000 black people lived in San Juan Hill, a neighborhood in New York City which covered the area of 40th Street to about 65th Street on the West Side of Manhattan. However, during the early stages of the Great Migration, according to Cheryl Knott,  in just one decade, between “1919 and 1920, the black population of New York City increased from 91,709 to 152,467.” The migration was not just happening externally, the black population was moving within New York City. Around 1905 Harlem was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. A 1925 article in the African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, specifically described the shifting demographic of the neighborhood by looking at the patronage of the local New York Public Library branch. “In 1905, [n]inety-five per cent (sic) of the library patrons were white. In 1920 the percentage had changed to fifty-fifty. Three years later 90 percent of the readers were Negroes, and today 95 per cent.” This change did not go unnoticed at the 135th Street Branch by the head librarian, Ernestine Rose.

Harlem, 1919. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1168428

Shifting Demographics and the Call for Black Librarians at the New York Public Library

According to a survey of public libraries in 1922 conducted by the Negroes Roundtable of the American Libraries Association, the New York Public Library did provide open access to African Americans, including opening branches in predominantly African American neighborhoods. However, it is clear that there was not a wide practice of hiring black staff members, including librarians. It is also not well-documented how welcome black people were in branches outside of their own neighborhoods. 

 

In 1920 the Urban League expressed the importance of black library staff to the head librarian, Ernestine Rose. She also agreed that diversifying the Harlem branch would be beneficial. According to former New York Public Library archivist, Bob Sink, Rose “offered four black women the opportunity to begin as a substitute at the Branch….Catherine Allen (Latimer) was the only one of the four to receive a regular appointment."

 

Ernestine Rose

Catherine Allen Latimer: The Early Years

Catherine Allen was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1896 and moved to Brooklyn, New York with her family a few years later, which she made her primary residence for the remainder of her life. She appeared to have an exceptional childhood. For two years as a young girl she travelled throughout Europe with her parents, specifically France and Germany, and it has been noted that she was fluent in both languages. After graduating from Girl’s High School in Brooklyn in 1916 she attended Howard University. It was at Howard that she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and began to study in the field of librarianship.

 

Like many black librarians of the time period, her first appointment was at a historically black college—the famed Tuskegee Institute. She left Tuskegee in 1920 and moved back to Brooklyn, where she married Benton R. Latimer. According to Sink, “[l]ike other new hires, Allen [Latimer] had started as a substitute and was promoted to Grade 1 only after she passed the entry level exam and her work was judged to be satisfactory.”

 

In 1924 Latimer and Rose, with the assistance of famed bibliophile Arturo Schomburg and other prominent African Americans, worked on creating a “reference collection of books on the Negro.” In 1925 that collection became the Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints, and Latimer was placed in charge of this division. The following year Latimer was, “promoted to Grade 3, making her an equal to the First Assistant in the Branch.”

 

Postcard of Girl's High School in Brooklyn where Latimer attended high school. NYPL Digial Collections, Image ID: 836937

The Schomburg Years

With her new appointment and promotion, 1926 would be a year of great excitement for Latimer at the Harlem Branch. It was in that year, that for $10,000 the New York Public Library purchased Arturo Schomburg’s stellar collection of books, manuscripts, painting, etchings, and pamphlets, which included thousands of items.  As a librarian who worked for the past six years to cultivate a collection of items on people across the African diaspora, this must have been an incredibly important moment in Latimer’s career. 

 

However, a few years after this major acquisition, around 1931, the plan was to hire Arturo Schomburg and place him in the position of Head Curator of the Schomburg Collection. In order to accomplish this, Ernestine Rose would have to demote Catherine Latimer from her role as First Assistant Librarian to a field worker in the new Adult Education Program. Rose claimed that Latimer was not experienced in working with rare manuscripts and books, but the demotion did not sit well with many people, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who decided to take up Latimer’s cause with the “downtown heads of the library.” 

 

Du Bois drafted a memoranda to Franklin F. Hopper, Chief of the Circulation Department, detailing the problems with Latimer’s demotion. The memo not only spoke out in support of Latimer, but pushed for the hiring of more black librarians. This turned into a lengthy correspondence between Du Bois and Latimer and Du Bois and Hopper. Hopper and Rose stated repeatedly that the lack of black librarians and the demotion of Latimer was not about race, but about lack of experience and quality of work. However, it is important to note that according to the former New York Public Library archivist, the four black women offered positions as substitutes at the same time as Latimer, “had better educational credentials than most of their white counterparts. All four had at least some college while only one-third of the 57 white women hired in 1920 had any college.” At the time of Schomburg’s hiring there were no black branch librarians and only four black assistants in the entire NYPL system.

The 135th Street Branch Library Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, 1938, with Catherine A. Latimer, reference librarian of the collection, in left background. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5186396

This issue was quickly picked up by the press and sensationalized, with one headline reading, "Harlem Group on Warpath for Scalp of 135th St. Library Head". As evidenced by letters between Latimer and Du Bois there was some tension at the 135th street branch between Rose, Latimer and Schomburg. After the article came out in the newspaper, Schomburg approached Latimer to explain that he had nothing to do with its publication. Another article was published soon after, with input by Du Bois explaining that he and the other advocates were not after Schomburg but fighting for the rights of the black employees at NYPL. With the continued advocacy of Du Bois and and a later grant by the Carnegie Foundation, Latimer was not demoted and Schomburg was made Curator of the Negro Division, while Latimer remained as its Reference Librarian. According to letters written by Latimer, she and Schomburg appeared to mend whatever tension existed between them, but she never completely trusted Ernestine Rose again, she wrote to DuBois in 1932:

I am enclosing a copy of a letter just received from Mr. Hopper which is most uncalled for, as Mr. Schomburg and I have gotten along under the conditions without any break whatever. I am sure Miss Rose has asked Mr. Hopper to write me such a letter for I do not believe Mr. Schomburg would have any reason to complain. I suppose Miss Rose is attempting to create discord between us.  

 

Afro-American, Jan. 23, 1932. Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.

Letter from Catherine A. Latimer to W. E. B. Du Bois, March 13, 1932

NYPL, the Later Years

Latimer would, over the years, describe in her letters to Du Bois other acts of prejudice against her, specifically by white librarians. However, despite any controversies or hardships, the impact and body of work created by Latimer is significant and lives on today. Just a small number of her contributions to the Library include:

  • As described by scholar, Dr. Laura Helton, Latimer, “built on a tradition of countercataloging at black institutions”, by re-cataloging items about the African diaspora in a way that was actually accessible to researchers. For example, she “removed books on Africa from the class for travel...and moved them to ethnology or history.”
  • Started clipping files on dozens of topics covering the black experience and later turned those clipping files into scrapbooks. Librarians at the Schomburg Center carried on this tradition far past the time of Latimer, and these scrapbooks are heavily used by researchers today.
  • Collected the works of great writers of the Harlem Renaissance that she knew personally, such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
  • Oversaw The Division of Negro Literature and History, which included the Schomburg Collection and promoted its special materials to reseachers, including a 1934 article published in The Crisis called, “Where Can I get Material on the Negro.”
  • Worked with numerous researchers, and was especially helpful to researchers who were uncovering lesser-known historical moments from black history, for example Pearly Graham who was the first to uncover the relationship between Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson.
  • More recently discovered (and currently being researched by Dr. Laura Helton), Latimer created a black poetry index with her fellow librarian, Dorothy Porter from Howard University.

After twenty-eight years of service, Catherine Latimer began to suffer from failing eyesight and she retired from the Library in 1948. She died at her home in Brooklyn shortly after her retirement at the age of 52 years old, leaving behind her husband, a WWI veteran, Benton R. Latimer, and a son, Bosely. The work Catherine Latimer did at the library is still being uncovered and utilized. She has influenced the work of librarians and researchers alike.

 

Click here to see the only known video of Catherine Latimer.

*It is important to note that although Langston Hughes refers to the collection at the 135th Street Branch as the Schomburg Collection, Arturo Schomburg’s collection was not acquired until 1925 and it was at that time that people often referred to it as the Schomburg Collection. The collection did not officially take on Mr. Schomburg’s name until 1940 and the Library was re-named after him in 1972.

References

American Library Association, Negro Library Service (Chicago: American Library
Association, 1925), 15.

"City Mourns Mrs. Latimer". (1948, September 25). New York Amsterdam News, p. 10.

"Death Claims Mrs. Latimer, The Librarian". (1948, September 18). New York Amsterdam News, p. 2.

Grossman, J.R (1989). Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, 3–4.

"Harlem Group on Warpath for Scalp of 135th St. Library Head. (1932, January 23). Afro-American, p. 7.

"Harlem Library Fight Not Against Schomberg, But to Save Employees". (1932, January 30). Afro-American, p. 7.

Helton, L. E. (2019). "On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading." Pmla, 134(1), 99–120. doi: 10.1632/pmla.2019.134.1.99

Hughes, L. (1963). "My Early Days in Harlem". Freedom Ways, 3(Summer), 312–14.

Jardins, J. D. (2006). "Black Librarians and the Search for Womens Biography during the New Negro History Movement". OAH Magazine of History, 20(1), 15–18. doi: 10.1093/maghis/20.1.15 

Latimer, C. A. (1934). "Where Can I Get Material on the Negro." The Crisis, 41(June), 164–165.

"Mrs. Latimer in Charge of Negro History Department". (1927, January 26). The New York Amsterdam News, p. 9.

Knott, C. (2015). Not free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 

Sink, B. (2015, October 27). Catherine Bosley Allen Latimer (1896-1948)

Sink, B. (2015, September 15). "The Struggles of NYPL’s Pioneering African-American Librarians" 

Walton, L. A. (1925, August 15). "Library Is Barometer of Race's Growth In N.Y." The Pittsburgh Courier.

“Work with Negroes Round Table,” Papers and Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual
Meeting of the American Library Association (Chicago: American Library Association,
1922), 362–66.

More in the Black New York Series