Intersections | A Sorority, Literacy, Jim Crow, and Bookmobiles: A Legacy of Service

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By John Amundsen (, with Monica White and Denise Glaudé | In spring 2016, Denise Glaudé, Chair of Archives and Heritage of the New York Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta reached out to ODLOS to tell us about how the sorority raised funds to sponsor bookmobile services in the Jim Crow south, providing access to information for African Americans when public library services were often unavailable to them.

DST BookmobileFounded in 1913 at Howard University in Washington, DC, Delta Sigma Theta is a non-profit sorority for college-educated women that focuses on programs serving the African American community. The New York Alumni Chapter represents alumnae in Manhattan, from 155th street south, and from the Hudson to East Rivers.

This year, we had the opportunity to speak again with Glaude, as well as chapter president Monica White to talk more about the history of the Chapter’s history supporting library and literacy services in the African American community.

JA: What prompted these efforts? Why libraries?

DG: Just thinking about the time the bookmobile started, especially in the South, where there were no books or libraries available to people of color, a need was clearly not being met. Since our focus is on public service, the lack of something critical for improvement and education, books, seemed to be the natural place to focus our efforts. The best way to get the books out was through a traveling source or a particular school. That effort evolved into a 20-year run of providing materials to people, the young and old in Southern areas. These places where there was no access to libraries, or in communities where libraries did exist but they weren’t allowed to use them, we felt that this did not mean that we should not have the opportunity to read.

JA: The bookmobile initiative lasted 20 years?

DG: It started in the 1930s and stopped in the late 50s. Of course, we did not stop our literacy programs. Several programs, including School America was implemented, chapter members volunteered on a weekly or monthly basis to partner with local libraries and elementary schools to help students develop a love for reading and introduce them to authors and illustrators in the area. 

JA: Ultimately, what are the goals for your work, and how have they evolved over time?

DG: We still believe that literacy, education and being informed is still the key to success for people of color, and I don’t see how we would ever get away from that. I can’t see the sorority not helping people become educated through books and technology. Everybody knows that knowledge is power, and we keep that in the forefront as we serve the public.

JA: Looking at the bookmobile program and literacy programs, are there specific people who really helped make these programs happen?

DG: Yes, and they all have gone on to a higher place after many years of dedicated service.   A librarian in our chapter, Maude Watkins, was the acting director of the bookmobile program, appointed by the National President at that time, Dr. Dorothy I. Height. Since we were spearheading this unique and new project, it made sense for a librarian to be involved. Ms. Watkins was a very active and committed member of the sorority – the sorority, the church and her job, were her life. She was very committed to education and worked hard for the education of young people. Everybody looked up to her because of what she stood for. Her commitment never wavered, She was always committed to education and excellence, if Ms. Watkins didn’t see it happening, she called the sorors on it to bring us up to our standards.  

DST Bookmobile Newspaper Article

DG: (Watkins’ leadership) made it easier for the New York (chapter) to take on this huge responsibility.     I was blown away at how they raised the money. They started small at first, raised the money for the books, and the initiative was so inspiring they raised money for a van to distribute the books.  The excitement led to a big celebration - the van going South – this was a big one!  An event held at Tavern on the Green – in NYC’s infamous Central Park, was not a place where black organizations held affairs.  NYAC made history by including performers from Broadway and broadcasting on the air the bookmobile’s mission of sharing books with people in the south. New Yorkers were very proud of the benefit, inspired by it and continue to be very honored by our affiliation with this contribution.

JA: In implementing this, what were the challenges? What were some successes you want to point out?

DG: My involvement in non-profit organizations as a volunteer and as an employee provided first- hand knowledge about the challenge of raising money. The challenge faced by the sorority was getting people to donate money during the depression from many of the people who did not have high paying jobs.  The sorority was committed to the bookmobile and met the challenge. The money collected continued to grow as the program grew. In the 1950s, providing a van full of free books for minorities located in the South was …major!  A van full of books that people could take advantage of, that was huge! Progress continued to take place in this literacy effort.  Forming the partnership with a corporation that helped with the donation of the van, to be able to have someone else believe in your project and contribute something tangible was a huge vote of public confidence.

JA: What are your aspirations for the future?

DG: There is a lot of talk about the literacy level of children of color and how the schools in the communities of color are functioning at a low level. For NYAC, we see literacy as a need to support the educational system and the community groups supporting our young people. Until we get everybody up to where they are capable of being, we will keep on working – we have to be inspired because some children don’t have support to move forward. In some cases, we’re attempting to fill many roles to help young people be successful.

We have a rich history our youth can be proud of to support them as they move forward. I’ve been talking with the community affairs person at the Schomburg Center; where we have an historic connection, to co-sponsor public programs in the future. Young people use the facility to do research and it serves as a home for NYAC’s public archives .Our sorority held a scavenger hunt – one of our youth’s 2017 Black History month activities – to find information at the library related to our community and the prominent people who lived in the community.

The Schomburg Library has been and continues to be a very special and useful institution for us.  The sorority’s centennial exhibit was held there in 2013, with a room set aside for the New York area chapters to display their artifacts. We had an Exhibit opening, with a STEM public awareness program for young people and the community. That opening was remarkable! Panelists were young people of color with doctorates in the fields of science, who grew up in or had close ties with the Harlem area. The library is very valuable as a partner to help with community outreach and to help people stay connected to libraries. 



Timeline of the DST Bookmobile Program

In 1937, DST launched its Library Committee to provide books for people in rural southern communities. Members of New York City’s Alpha Sigma Chapter (now New York Alumnae Chapter -NYAC) announced the project at a press conference encouraging financial support from members of the Sorority and the general public. ("Deltas Bookmobile To Serve Two Million" (PDF))

Mid 1940s, momentum and money increased as each chapter contributed $2.50 toward the purchase of 10 books.  Chapter names appeared in books donated. The administrative “traveling library” needs were organized and met by local and regional librarians.  One of our Founders, Jimmie Bugg, attended the dedication in NC of the Franklin County Traveling Library.

June 1950, the Ford bookmobile was purchased left New York equipped with books to serve people in Georgia’s rural areas. Maude Watkins, a New York librarian and member of NYAC, served as Acting Director.  The mobile library in Carrollton County gained a tremendous amount of interest and was used by the community.

("Deltas Launch Bookmobile with TV, Luncheon, Tea," New York Amsterdam News (1943-1961); Jun 17, 1950 (PDF)

1951, ALA presented its Letter Award to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., for its Bookmobile program in the South.  Maude Watkins, NYAC past president, received the award on behalf of the sorority. ("Deltas Win American Library Award," The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); Jul 21, 1951 (PDF))

1954 the sorority’s last bookmobile project was implemented in South Carolina, after which, the Sorority disbanded the National Library Committee. Today, the sorority’s literacy activities are under Educational Development, one of its Five-Point Programmatic Thrust areas.

Later Literacy Efforts 

Once the traveling library program was disbanded books to children from the sorority were donated in various ways. School America, one of the Sorority’s later programs, led by sorority members, partnered with local librarians to conduct free reading programs to the community.  Often these programs, especially in the NYAC’s service area, included read alouds, guest appearances by celebrity authors and illustrators and the presentation of free books to the program participants.  Today, Delta Gems, EMBODI and Dr. Betty Shabazz Academy, youth programs participants receive annual book donations from our Chapter members.

The statement below “These books, carefully selected and made ready for use can change the lives of people” written in 1945 program at the dedication of the “Traveling Library” ceremony in North Carolina is connected directly to our NY Alumnae Chapter member, Jean Blackwell Hutson.  She was Chief Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Mrs. Blackwell was a major contributor to carefully selecting books and making them ready for use by others. 

NY Alumnae Chapter Member, Jean Blackwell Hutson’s NY Public Library System Highlights

In 1948, shortly after the Franklin Traveling Library dedication, Mrs. Hutson became the acting curator of the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints at the York Public Library, Countee branch in Harlem.  Her tenure is noteworthy because of the significant contributions she made to the renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

1950s Jean Hutson focused on processing accumulated material, following one of the early Curator’s retirement, and publicizing the Collection to local groups who were not aware of its contents. The 25th anniversary of the Schomburg Collection was celebrated under her early tenure.

1962, under Mrs. Hutson’s supervision, the library published the Dictionary Catalogue of the Schomburg Collection, which was put on microfilm and made its holdings known to libraries in Europe, Africa and the Americas.

1965   President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana requested Mrs. Hutson’s aid in the creation of the University of Ghana's Africana collection.

1971- 1972 assisted in the formation of the Schomburg Corporation to solicit funds for renovations. Renaming of the building Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture and entire Schomburg collection was collected from various branch libraries and transferred to the Center. 

1981, the current structure a $3.7 million center opened finally, one year after she retired as Chief of the Schomburg research in Black Culture.

2007 The Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division Schomburg Center

Jean Blackwell Hutson (Sept. 7, 1914-Feb 4, 1998) was born in Summerfield, Florida and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland.  She received her graduate and undergraduate degrees in Library Science from Barnard College.  She was an active member of our Chapter, NYAC, until she became ill.  Her outstanding contributions to the Chapter and community continue to be felt throughout the literary world.

Monica White is the President, and Denise Glaudé is the Chair of Archives and Heritage of the New York Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority; John Amundsen is Program Officer, Outreach and Communications for ODLOS.