On September 29, 2021 the Buncombe County Library system celebrates the 60th anniversary of integration. The 828 Digital Archives for Historical Equity Project has been working closely with Buncombe County Special Collections to digitize documents from the Asheville-Buncombe Library Collection and research the history of segregation and integration in the libraries in order to commemorate this historic milestone! We are excited to highlight this important history and share it with our patrons.
Black residents of Asheville and Buncombe County were not allowed access to Pack Memorial Library until 1961. The Asheville Colored Library began lending books in 1927, with Irene Hendrick serving as the head (and only) librarian for over three decades. Although largely funded by the City of Asheville, the Colored Public Library was not considered to be a formal branch of the library system until 1951. City Council supervised the appointment of the library’s Board of Trustees, and indeed approved the Colored Library’s budget each year.
The status of the Colored Library, later re-named the “Market Street Branch,” and again the “Market-Eagle Street Branch,” remained complicated throughout the years, as its affiliation with the formal Asheville-Buncombe Library System was subject to contest.
School desegregation long served as a major focal point of the Civil Rights movement, but integration of the workforce and public spaces generally were just as central to the struggle.
In Buncombe County, the path to integrating public libraries spanned decades. Notes from a Library Board meeting in 1937 contain one of the earliest mentions of the question of integration. In their February meeting, Board members reported that Black nurses from the Health Department requested use of the Sondley Library’s reference materials, which were housed as a separate collection on the 7th floor of City Hall. F.A. Sondley, a local lawyer, historian, and collector donated his personal collection upon his death, which included tens of thousands of printed volumes, artwork, gemstones, and other memorabilia.
In his will, Sondley stipulated that his collection was only to be used by white patrons, which the library board cited as their reason for barring patrons of color from using the collection. In response to the nurses’ request, the librarian was instructed to “loan books asked for by colored nurses to the Health Department, to be used in their rooms and returned at the close of the day.”1 Effectively, the materials had to be loaned to a white patron on their behalf, and the nurses were not permitted to enter the physical space of the collection.
The issue resurfaced once again in 1943, as Friends of the Library discussed the separate organizations. One member, Ms. Roberts, “suggested that there be one organization of Friends of the Library, membership of which would include white and colored people. There was discussion and the decision that the suggestion be tabled for further thought and reconsideration at the next meeting.”2 In most instances when the topic of integration came up, library leadership moved to postpone discussions, or create committees to “investigate” the issue, otherwise putting off a difficult conversation about segregation and race. In this case, Board member Annie Westall did reach out to the head librarian at the Colored Public Library, Irene Hendrick. In the following meeting, Westall “reported that the colored librarian prefers a separate organization of Friends of the Library for the colored people, feeling that it will make for self-reliance and independence for her race.”3 Hendrick’s response is interesting in that she finds agency for her community in her choice to maintain an autonomous Black Friends of the Library organization. Irene Hendrick was not approached about the topic of integrating the library facilities for all patrons—only membership of the Friends of the Library, who worked on a volunteer basis essentially to host events and fundraise for particular branches of the library system. Her decision to maintain a separate organization could have had more to do with the fact that she would have the autonomy to run the organization herself, and answer only to the Board and Friends of the Colored Public Library.
Another five years passed before the topic of integration resurfaced in a Library Board meeting. “The question of county service to colored residents was discussed. Mr. Wright and Mr. Stephens were asked to investigate the advisability of this added service and report at the next meeting. In connection with this, the Librarian was asked to obtain from City Manager Weldon Weir the legal status of the Colored Public Library.”4 Months later, the response to this “investigation” concluded with the remark that “the matter needed careful study before any action could be taken. The motion was made and passed that the chairman appoint a committee to investigate thoroughly this situation.”5 No committee was appointed in 1949, and would not be until nearly a decade later. This inaction characterizes the general attitude of the Board of Trustees toward the issue of opening the libraries—their lack of urgency reflects the lack of desire or interest to see any changes enacted.
By the early 1950s, Board members began to take notice of the overall condition of the Colored Public Library, referring to the situation as “the Colored Public Library Problem.”6 The Chairman noted the “changed physical appearance of the book stock, the lack of circulation and patrons, and the drabness of the library entrance and rooms.” The suggested solution to these issues was an “experiment” in the form of offering Bookmobile service in certain Black neighborhoods, and the decision was made to reach out to members of the Shiloh community to gauge interest.7
In addition to the physical branches being segregated, we have not found evidence that the Bookmobile was an available service to residents of color in the county. Although the suggestion was made to extend this service to Black residents, in actuality, the program that was offered to J.C. Daniels, principal of Shiloh Elementary School, was a “deposit stop located in the Shiloh school.”8 Rather than allowing Black patrons to take advantage of the Bookmobile services, the vehicle was essentially used as a shuttle to deliver books from the Colored Public Library to Shiloh Elementary.9 Daniel’s interest was in providing reading materials for adults as well as children, but the satellite library was housed in an elementary school, likely limiting the program’s reach as “Shiloh school [drew] its enrollment from a large part of Buncombe County and many of the students [were] transported by bus.”10 Two separate deposits of books were delivered in April, but later reports reflected “that the books sent to Shiloh Elementary School did not circulate to any marked degree.”11 Unsurprisingly, “the juvenile titles circulated more than the adult collection.”12 The service was suspended for the summer months, and no plans were made to resume the service once school was back in session.
Following a $3,100 renovation in 1951, the decision was made to change the name of the Colored Public Library to the “Asheville Public Libraries – Market Street Branch.”13 It was at this point that the Market Street Branch was officially considered part of the library system, rather than an independent branch. Several years passed with little mention of integration—most of the conversation concerning the Market Street Branch was in regard to the “excellent work” being done by Librarian Irene O. Hendrick.14
In 1957, Board chairman Annie Westall reported that “a committee had been appointed to study the use of the library by all races.” In part this committee sought to reach out to cities of a similar size to Asheville, inquiring about their procedures in integrating library systems. They were also asked to “confer with Mr. Robert Wells on the legal phases of the use of the Pack Library Building by all races.”15 That same year, the library received a membership application from a Black resident, Mrs. Davenport. Board member George Wright consulted with the City Manager, and reported back his determination of the legal status regarding this decision. Describing his conversation with Mr. Weir, Mr. Wright cited the 1919 deed by which the Pack Memorial Library Association turned the Pack Library property over to the City of Asheville. Wright argued that since the cIty accepted these conditions, if the Board violates the conditions of Sondley’s will, the property could revert to the Pack Memorial Library Association. He clarified: “The deed uses the words “white” and “separate” as conditions for the continued use of the Pack Library property. [Wright] also pointed out that Mr. Sondley’s will specifies that his collection be used by ‘well conducted white people.’
Therefore, Wright continued, the Board “is faced with limitations and cannot risk losing the property and is bound to decline to accept applications either at Pack or its branches for use by Negroes.”16 Mrs. Davenport was notified that her application was denied, and the board published an official policy “to be followed in case the librarians were faced with the problem of a request for service by members of the Negro race.” The following statement was unanimously adopted:
The Board of Trustees of the Pack Memorial Library of the City of Asheville is advised that the building and land now housing the main branch were conveyed to the City of Asheville by the Pack Memorial Library Association by deed which provided for the separate use and benefit of the white citizens of the City of Asheville, and that said deed provided for a reversion of said property to the Association upon a breach of the conditions of the deed.
The Board strongly feels, therefore, that it can in no way take any affirmative action which might be construed as a violation or breach of the conditions of this deed and thereby result in a possible loss of library facilities to the citizens of Asheville. It has been and is now the policy of the Board to make available to the Colored patrons of the Library such reference works as are requested through the facilities of the Market-Eagle Branch and to maintain there as wide and current a selection of periodicals, newspapers, and other non-reference materials as the demand has justified.
For the reasons stated, your request for service must be referred to the Market-Eagle Branch, where, we can assure you, our staff member, Mrs. Irene Hendrick will insofar as possible make available to you the resources of the main library.17
Throughout the discussions surrounding integration, library administrators frequently cited Sondley’s will as the sole justification for refusing service to Black residents. It is difficult to tell if there was truly a concern that legal action would be taken that would cripple the library system, but given that there was no serious legal threat following integration, it is easy to imagine that the Sondley collection provided a convenient excuse for delaying or denying integration.
Despite creating a hard and fast policy reinforcing segregation in 1957, the fight for library integration was far from over. North Carolina became a national stage for desegregation when in February 1960, four African American college students walked into a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., and sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter. Their sit-in movement spread like wildfire. Within months, similar protests were staged in dozens of other cities, mainly in the South. The Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality—ASCORE—was established in 1958, two years before the Greensboro protests, and led the wave of student demonstrations locally. Though their work was not widely reported on in papers at the time, we can assume that pressure from student activists and rising attention to the national Civil Rights Movement forced the Board to come back to what they called the “problem of integration.”
Unwilling to make a controversial decision, the Board of Trustees deferred the question of desegregation to Asheville City Council. The Council reached an informal decision by September 16, 1960 that the “total library facilities” should be opened to all citizens, and that “in the event litigation develops as a result of this action that the City Council will face this problem when it arises and stand squarely behind the action since it is all taken in good faith.”18 But the ultimate decision was once again deferred back to the Library Board, to consider City Council’s recommendation and put forward a plan of their own.
Once the Library Board began to seriously consider integration in 1960, many Board members expressed that they were in favor of opening the library to all races—with the exception of the Sondley collection. They argued that desegregation would be “violating a trust if the Sondley Library were thrown open to all races.” One Board member suggested that they open only the first floor to all patrons, but disallow patrons of color above the first floor, where the Sondley Collection was located. Annie Westall disapproved of this plan, feeling that it was not a fair solution, and that it would create too much administrative difficulty for the employees. A member of the Human Relations Council at the time, Ruben Dailey added his opinion that “a half loaf is better than none.”19 20 A number of possible solutions were suggested, and eventually the Board summed up the following possible courses of action:
- Obtain a release from all next of kin of Mr. Sondley in so far as the Collection is concerned.
- Ignore the possibility of an attack on the City by reason of violation of terms of the will and open the library to all citizens.
- Open the Library on a divided basis; i.e., not allowing Negroes to use the Sondley, but allowing them to use all other parts.
- Take no action, but until a test case is brought by some Negro citizen.21
Regardless of their decision, it was clearly emphasized that “the action of the Board should be disseminated and made known through the joint committee on race relations with as little fanfare as possible.” Such comments from the Board are revealing. Several times members of the Board firmly expressed their desire to avoid any and all publicity surrounding the question of integration. Responding to an Asheville Citizen reporter’s request for comment on this issue, library director Anthony Lord “stated emphatically that he felt no publicity of any kind concerning this matter should be released.” 22 The Board’s interest in seeing the library system desegregated likely had less to do with their own determination to achieve racial equity, and more to do with avoiding bad publicity, with the Civil Rights Movement gaining traction in public discourse and in the media.
Meanwhile, activists from the community worked outside of the libraries to fight for open access to the city’s facilities. Viola Spells, an Asheville native, described her experience working with ASCORE. Ms. Spells helped to create a committee specifically aimed at desegregating public spaces like lunch counters and public libraries. Spells had long been a devoted patron of the Eagle-Market Street Library, but was determined to have access to all library facilities. As part of the library committee, she worked with future Civil Rights attorney James Ferguson, one of the founders of ASCORE, to create strategies for integration.
Interview with Viola Spells
In these strategy meetings, Spells told Ferguson “that we felt the library should be open to all people, because everyone paid the taxes that serviced that library,” she recalls. They approached the director of Pack Library’s Board of Trustees, Anthony Lord, who according to Spells, replied that “it was fine with him, but he would have to take it to the board of trustees. And they met and approved to open up the library to everybody in the community.” On September 15, the Board of Trustees voted 4 to 1 to open all City of Asheville Libraries, “including all departments and branches to all people on or before November 1, 1961.”23 Desegregation officially began on September 29, and by mid October, “48 adult and 9 juvenile memberships had been taken. The move was accomplished in a quiet and dignified manner.”24
The ASCORE committee met with Lord for a second time following the decision. Spells recalls: “[Mr. Lord] gave us a tour of the library. He even went into the vault and brought out these very special books…He said how many valuable books that the library did own and that we were welcome to look at these valuable books at any time.” “Then he showed us downstairs where they had meeting rooms and programs — we didn’t have anything like that at our little library — and I thought that was really interesting. I later became a librarian, and one of my strengths was doing public programming.”25
Reflecting on the impact of the library’s desegregation on the Black community, Spells feels “it meant a lot, because even though once I finished high school and went on to college in Durham, the students who were left in high school and the colleges were open by that time to Black students, some of them went on to UNCA, AB Tech, and they had the advantage of using the resources of the Pack Square Library.”26
After decades of debate, pushback, and hard work from community members, the experience of library integration in Buncombe County was summarized succinctly in an October 19 Memo: “INTEGRATION: Done!”
Over the next several weeks, all of the materials referenced in this piece will be available digitally via our online Special Collections catalog. The Asheville-Buncombe Library collection, like all other materials held at Buncombe County Special Collections is open to anyone for research. If you’d like to know more about this collection, or would like to share your memories of the Eagle-Market Branch, integration, or other stories about the library system, please reach out to email@example.com.
Endnotes (All dates refer to Library Board Meeting minutes found in MS080 The Asheville-Buncombe Libraries Collection).
1 February 11, 1937
2 October 1, 1943
3 November 8, 1943
4 November 18, 1948
5 March 16, 1949
6 February 15, 1951
7 February 15, 1951
8 March 19, 1951
9 April 19, 1951
10 March 19, 1951
11 April 19, 1951
12 May 24, 1951
13 May 24, 1951
14 August 28, 1945
15 September 19, 1957
16 October 2, 1957
17 March 17, 1960
18 Weldon Weir memo to Walter McGuire, September 16, 1960
19 January 26, 1961
20 Note: Dailey became the second Black man to be elected to Asheville City Council in 1969
21 January 26, 1961
22 October 20, 1960
23 September 15, 1961
24 October 9, 1961
About the Author
Catherine Amos is a local historian and UNC Asheville alumna, class of 2017. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in History with a focus on women and gender identity in early 20th-century Germany, she joined the Biltmore Company as a Historic Interpreter. Catherine has been working in the field of public history since 2014, with four years of experience as a Historic Interpreter, both at Vance Birthplace State Historic Site and the Biltmore Estate. Her background includes internship work with the Department of Historic Preservation and Collections at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education, and Biltmore’s Museum Services team. She currently serves as the project assistant for the 828 Digital Archives for Historical Equity Project.