Separate, But Not So Equal

By Samuel Huff 

Excerpt from the Alexandria Library's 3rd Annual Report which demonstrates that the administration was aware of the inequalities between the main branch and its "colored" branch.

Next, let’s compare the nature of the facilities analyzed in the previous section with those constructed to service Northern Virginia's African American population. The disparities between white and “colored” libraries were significant to say the least. As we can see in the map below Black libraries in Northern Virginia for the most part emerged one of two ways. Either it was formed by black leaders in the community, like the Holmes Association in Arlington, or it was established as a branch of an existing (white) library. Black-formed libraries like the Holmes library faced insurmountable odds of funding and acquiring resources, but for this inquiry we will be focusing on branch libraries as their association with the main branches facilitate a more organic analysis of the disparate conditions imposed by social hierarchies and articulate a more confontational theme between heirarchical society and blackness. However, to negate the efforts of those Black organizations that erected spaces like the Holmes Library would do a disservice to the historical record. Though they struggled to obtain funding and material neccessities, these spaces created by and for Black citizens demonstrate the value and meaning Black communities identitfied in libraries, and were therefore successful in the fact that, despite material exigency, they manufactured a space that repaired and nourished Black humanity within a broader environment that sought to dismantle it. Simply the constructon of these spaces constituted an act of resistance to the institution of segregation by endorsing notions of black intellectualism, community and identity through the resources these libraries provided to nurture them.


This map shows the segregated libraries of Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Loudoun county that were operational for a significant portion of the 1940s. The red icons mark the site of libraries that did NOT offer services to black residents. The green icons mark those of libraries that DID offer services to black residents. As illustrated, the segregation of libraries in northern Virginia was geographic, not only in its exclusion of black bodies from white spaces, but also through the isolation and inaccessibility that it imposed on northern Virginia's Black residents.
*The Vienna Colored School is the only site marked that is not a definitive community library. It was marked to demonstrate that many Black Virginians could only rely on segregated schools for access to library resources. 


Before we begin to assess the material differences, it is important to address the complexity of funding. Most Black libraries in Northern Virginia were created as separate branches of main libraries, constructed under the “separate but equal” policy.(20) It appears that the main branches satisfied the “equal” requirement by allocating a percentage of funds that correlated with the population size. For example, in Alexandria the black population constituted ~15% of the population and so the Robert Robinson Branch was allocated ~15% of the total funds for the library system.(21) The notion of “fairness” here is a disingenuous one; using percentages to achieve equality compromises the quality and quantity of resources and results in dramatically different experiences. Put simply, materials are not cheaper just because the group using them is smaller. This underscores the importance of evaluating spaces and material geographies; they often expose inequalities that traditional historical resources, like documents, can obscure.


Report of Books added to the Robert Robinson Library. The handwritten summary allows us to contrast the collections of the two branches. The blue arrow shows the main branch's collection while he green arrow shows the Robinson branch's. 

We can see the disparities between white and black libraries even before venturing inside them; the material edifices themselves were far less equipped than their “main branch” counterparts to provide the community with the services expected of libraries. The contrast between the buildings that housed main branches and those that were built to serve African Americans is stark with regards not only to size, but also landscaping, amenities, furniture, and shelving capacity.(22) The visual contrast in structures follows a consistent theme of Jim Crow in which the inferior hardscapes designated to serve black individuals were designed to psychologically reify the social inferiority and “place” of African Americans in the American landscape.(23) The metaphorical visibility of subjection alongside the minimal resources did little to amplify interest among the population. 

The collections of Black branches left much to be desired. It was common practice for the “main” library to hand down its over-used or discarded materials to the branches. Aside from the condition of the resources, the materials received by Black libraries were also largely juvenile in nature.(24) Still, black libraries were given a budget to secure new materials, but these budgets speak to the disparities of the “equal funding” previously mentioned. For example, in the 1941 budget for the Alexandria Libraries, the main library was appropriated $2500 to acquire new materials, restore those it deemed necessary, and purchase other supplies. For the same expenses, the Robinson branch was allocated $735.(25) The lack of adult content in addition to the worn-out condition of the books and materials that they did receive, were yet another material means to reify the social order and “naturalize difference” in the space.

The Holmes Library independently operated out of local churches until it was adopted into the Arlington Library Association in 1946. 

We can also look at the administrative funding to illustrate the disparities. The same, aforementioned budget for the Alexandria Library Association shows us that the main branch’s head librarian was set to receive a monthly salary of $160 where the Robinson Librarian was to make $65 per month.(26) The devalued position of the Robinson librarian resulted in significant staffing issues and crisis arose when the branch’s librarian left her position to take up a “civil service position in Washington” because of the superior salary.(27) The librarian’s vacancy was temporarily filled by a college student, but ultimately the library had to reduce its hours of operation due to the vacancy. The following weeks saw decreased circulation and less attendance as a result.(28) 

Perhaps the most telling expenses detailed in the budget was that of the insurance. The 1941 budget lists the main branch’s and the Robinson branch’s budget for “insurance and misc.” as $85 and $40 respectively.(29) Yet a closer look at the detailed summary reveals that all of those funds allocated to the Robert Robinson Branch were for “misc. Expenses.”(30) The Robert Robinson Branch of the Alexandria Library Association was not insured. When we follow the money, we see that the administration of the Alexandria Library association knew that nothing they had given to or purchased for the Robinson Branch was worth insuring. This is, by far, the most explicit evidence of their acknowledgment of and disregard for, the fact that the black community of Alexandria did not have access to a library of equal value to that of the main branch.

This budget shows the general funding disarities between the main branch and the Robert Robinson branch. It also demonstrates that no insurance was purchased on the Robert Robinson Branch. 

The disparities between the branches demonstrate the inequity and provide us with a more comprehensive idea of the environment we are analyzing. We can now understand libraries as unique sites that illustrate the metaphorical, ideological, and material injustices that were perpetuated against black individuals in the 20th century. The denial of these material resources translated to an inability for African Americans to use the space in a manner that resembled their counterpart’s libraries. The entirety of the potential these resources provided - education, communal unification, etc. - was restricted from African Americans. These “black only” spaces represented the antithesis of what society had deemed libraries to be.

20. Barbuschak, Desegregation, 10.

21. Alexandria Library Budget Request, 1944, Budget 1938-1944 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.

22. 3rd Annual Report of the Alexandria Library, 1940, Administrative Reports 1939-1945 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.

23. Barbuschak, Desegregation, 164-166.

24. Annual Report of Robert Robinson Library, 1941-1942, Administrative Reports 1939-1945 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.

25. Alexandria Library Budget, 1941, Budget 1938-1944 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.

26. Alexandria Library Budget ,1941.

27. Fifth Annual Report of the Alexandria Libraries, 1941-1942, Administrative Reports 1939-1945 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.

28. Fifth Annual Report of the Alexandria Libraries, 1941-1942.

29. Alexandria Library Budget, 1941.

30. Alexandria Library Budget, 1941.

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