Atlanta’s Black Libraries and the Push for Black Voters

Ruby Blackburn demonstrating a voting machine, 1959 (UGA Special Collections Library Online Exhibitions)

After a federal court ruling invalidated Georgia’s all-white primary in 1946, there was a huge push to form a coalition to further the strength of Black voting. Voting leagues cropped up across Atlanta as Black community leaders rushed to educate potential voters. Annie McPheeters, librarian at the West Hunter Branch Library, decided to act outside the scope of her stated library duties to aid in the cause. At the time, no political meetings or materials were allowed at the library. However, McPheeters and her staff worked to compile information about each person running for office to share with her members of the community. It would be some of the earliest action taken at the library to prepare Black voters for voting in Atlanta, but it would not be the last. The work of Black women in particular—who either worked or used the Auburn Avenue or West Hunter Branch libraries—educated Black voters and prepared them for the voting booth, and in doing so helped change the political landscape of the city.

Many community members who were involved in preparing Black voters in Atlanta used the library to their advantage. Mrs. Ruby Blackburn, who owned “Ruby’s Beauty Shop” in Washington Park, founded the Georgia League of Negro Women Voters after being rejected from the all-white League of Women Voters. McPheeters remembered Blackburn going to various activist, political, and religious meetings across the city to persuade Black women in particular to register to vote. The Voters League eventually worked with the library to provide information on politicians and provide demonstrations on how to use the new voting machines introduced in the late 1940s. Blackburn would provide the library with information and visit the branch to demonstrate how to use the voting machines. Throughout this period, Annie McPheeters made sure the library assisted voters: “Sometimes I would take material and pass it out, or I would take—we would make book lists and give these booklists- pass these booklists out—letting them know that certain types of material was in the library that they could use”1. At this point, McPheeters was working at the West Hunter Branch and had moved Auburn Avenue’s Negro History Collection there.

Hallie Beachem Brooks, a professor of Library Science at Atlanta University, was another Black woman who got involved in registering and educating potential Black voters. Brooks was a member of the League of Negro Women Voters and did work with the Hungry Club Forum, a civic organization founded in 1945 that provided low-cost lunches and guest speakers to speak on a variety of topics. White political leaders in Atlanta who were sympathetic to Black issues would also attend and hear local Black leaders’ concerns. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one such speaker, who addressed the Forum on May 10, 1967. Brooks’ work with library students, the library, and groups like the Voters League and Hungry Club demonstratesthe close relationships between different factions of the Black community to achieve higher voter registration and full civil rights.

Like the Hungry Club Forum, the Atlanta Negro Voters League was founded at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta. The ANVL had two chairs—one Republican and one Democrat—so that all voters felt welcome to join. John Wesley Dobbs, the unofficial “mayor” of Auburn Avenue, served as the first Republican chair. A.T. Walden, president of Atlanta’s NAACP branch, served as the first Democratic chair. The ANVL worked not only to register Black voters across Atlanta, but to also educate members on how to spread information about voting and candidates. The ANVL took out ads in papers like the Atlanta Daily World and mailed information cards to all registered Black voters.

The ANVL also had close ties with the library. Many of them belonged to “Friends of the Library.” Many of the women who worked with the library, including Blackburn and Brooks, were Friends of the Library as well. The Friends of the Library was a philanthropic group that gave time, materials, and support to the libraries’ various programs. Just as the library supported the various groups these women had formed, so did they toosupport the library in return. The Friends of the Library supported voter registration and the desegregation of all public libraries in Atlanta. Ultimately, the Friends of the Library believed that through education and community involvement, equality could be achieved. “At this time,” Annie McPheeters remembers, “the Black citizens were beginning to know that if we were to make any advances in our lives and in our communities, that we were going to have to do something about it”2.

Atlanta Negro Voters League Flyer (Atlanta University Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library Archives)

Many Black citizens were afraid to use the new voting machines introduced in the 1950s. By coming to the library, they could learn how to use them in a safe environment with community members they trusted. Operating from 1941-1962, the University Homes Branch was also used as a voting precinct. Those who learned to vote at West Hunter or Auburn Avenue could vote around friendly faces at University Homes. As a result of the work done by the Black voting leagues, the 1949 primary marked the first real coalition of Black voters in Atlanta. The ANVL endorsed Mayor William B. Hartsfield, who won a close reelection campaign. The Black vote meant he won again in 1953 and 1957.

The Fulton County Library System officially desegregated in 1959. Although Auburn Avenue and University Homes eventually closed, the West Hunter Branch still operates as the West End Branch today. Due to Atlanta’s still-largely segregated neighborhoods, it remains a community gathering place for many Black Atlantans. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a watershed moment for Black voter registration in Georgia. Black voter registration had never reached 30%, but by 1985, it had more than doubled. In 1973, Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of Atlanta. His grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs, had worked with the library to get Black voters registered and educated. His mother, Irene Dobbs Jackson, had been the activist to desegregate the Fulton County Library system: “We [wanted] to let them know that the library was one of their institutions which they could depend on. It was a tool to fight ignorance”3. The Black libraries of Atlanta had a direct hand in educating the voters that would force Atlanta politics into what became known as the “New South.”

  1. Oral history interview with Annie L. McPheeters, aarlOHC92-001. Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History, 5.
  2. McPheeters, 23.
  3. McPheeters, 6.
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Madison Ingram

Madison Ingram is a fifth-year PhD Candidate in the history department at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her research interests include Black history, public history, and women’s history. She has a forthcoming dissertation entitled “An Atmosphere of Service and Freedom: Black Libraries in the Segregated South, 1905-1965,” which focuses on segregated libraries and Black librarians in the South.

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