Past Treasure of the Month – February 2021
While most Galvestonians today are familiar with the Rosenberg Library at 2310 Sealy Street, many probably don’t realize that at one time there existed a separate Rosenberg Library branch for African American citizens. The 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson established a “separate but equal” mandate which legalized the segregation of public schools as well as public libraries. The Rosenberg Library Colored Branch operated in Galveston from 1905 until 1959.
In honor of Black History Month, Rosenberg Library celebrated the legacy of Lillian Davis, longtime librarian at the Colored Branch, as the February Treasure of the Month.
In 1881, a permanent public school system was created for the education of both white and black children in Galveston. The schools were segregated however, with separate schools established for each race. This same separation of races was still observed when the Rosenberg Library Association began making plans for a public library on the island shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In March 1904, several months before the much-anticipated grand opening of the city’s new library, the Board of Directors adopted a resolution declaring that “a branch library shall be established so that the white and colored citizens of Galveston may separately derive advantages from the bequest of Henry Rosenberg for the establishment and maintenance of a Free Public Library for the use of the people of Galveston.”
An agreement between the Board of Trustees of the Public Schools of Galveston and the Board of Directors of Rosenberg Library called for a two-story addition to Central High School (for African Americans) to house the branch library. Construction was completed in January 1905.
Professor John R. Gibson, the principal of Central High School, served as the first head librarian for the Colored Branch. While Gibson was manager of the branch library, day-to-day operations were overseen by a library assistant. Eugenie Mabson was the first individual hired to fill this role; subsequent assistants were Annette Mason, Theresa Gibson, and Lola Thompson. In 1918, Lillian Davis assumed the role of assistant librarian at the Rosenberg Librarian Colored Branch.
Lillian Davis was born in Galveston on January 27, 1897. According to U.S. Census records, her father Cornelius Davis was a drayman, and her mother Pauline worked as a laundress. Prior to the Great Storm of 1900, the family lived in an alley house at 1309 30th Street. It is unknown what happened to Cornelius Davis, but by 1910, Pauline Davis was married to her second husband, Simon Walton. Lillian lived with her mother, stepfather, and several siblings during her youth; she graduated from Central High School in 1916. Two years later, she was hired as a librarian for the Rosenberg Library Colored Branch. (During the 1920s, the branch library moved from its original location into a new annex adjacent to the 1893 Central High building. This structure still stands at 2627 Avenue M and is home to Old Central Cultural Center.)
Together John R. Gibson and Lillian Davis worked to build a book collection relevant to the island’s African American residents. They requested funds from the Rosenberg Library’s board of directors for the purchase of books by black authors and scholars. According to a Galveston Daily News article published in November 1925, new additions to the Colored Branch collection included History of the Negro Church, Social History of the American Negro, and Book of American Negro Poetry.
Davis was promoted to Head Librarian in 1928. She sought opportunities to develop professionally including attended attending a conference for African American librarians held at Prairie View A&M during the spring of 1936. The conference prompted her to continue expanding the collection at the Colored Branch to include books related to African American history and culture. With financial contributions donated by members of the black community, Davis purchased works including Negro Makers of History, The Story of the Negro Retold, and Anthology of American Negro Literature.
During her tenure, Davis created popular programs for adults such as the Book Lovers’ Club. Created in 1937, the primary goal of the Book Lovers’ Club was “self-improvement through the reading of good books.” In addition to regular book discussion meetings, the club presented musical programs and art exhibits at the Colored Branch. Members also raised funds to purchase books for the branch library’s collection.
Beginning in 1938, Lillian Davis celebrated Negro History Week (now Black History Month) each February at the Colored Branch. She arranged for guest lectures, educational exhibits, and book displays related to the significant cultural contributions made by African American men and women. In addition to serving older students at Central High, Davis planned special activities for elementary classes that visited the colored branch each November during National Library Week. Likewise, she ran a vacation reading club for children each summer. In 1951, the Rosenberg Library Board of Directors awarded Davis with a check for $100 in recognition of 33 years of employment with the organization—at the time, she was the longest-serving member of the Rosenberg Library staff.
In 1954, a new Central High School building was constructed on Avenue I (Sealy) between 30th and 31st Street. The Rosenberg Library Colored Branch was relocated to the new Central campus. The re-opening of the branch library coincided with Negro History Week, February 7 – 14, 1954. That year’s them was “Negro History, A Foundation for Integration.” Lillian Davis planned a series of events that week including exhibits, a book discussion, musical performances, and a tea hosted by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Sadly, Lillian Davis died of heart failure in November 1955, less than a year after the opening of the new Colored Branch library. Her funeral was held at Macedonia Baptist Church. Honorary pall bearers included members of her Book Lovers’ Club. Davis is buried at Memorial Cemetery in Galveston.
Four years after the death of Lillian Davis, the Colored Branch of Rosenberg Library was permanently closed. In 1959, the Rosenberg Library Board of Directors voted to integrate the institution, and citizens of all races were welcomed at the main branch.