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A Brief History of America’s First Public Library For African Americans

When the Louisville Western Branch Library opened in 1905, it took its place in history as the first in the nation to provide library services exclusively for the African American community, using only African American staff.

For nearly a full century, the Louisville Western Branch Library has remained a separate and distinct flame: an unwavering source of individual self-enlightenment and a beacon of community strength and support.

Following the Civil War, despite constitutional amendments granting them freedom, citizenship and certain voting rights, African American desires for individual fulfillment and equality seemed unachievable.

In the South, everything was legally segregated. And throughout the nation you couldn’t find a public library which would dream of opening its doors of self-enlightenment to people of color.

Most felt powerless to challenge the system. Yet in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, African Americans in Kentucky — in particular Louisville — were among the leaders in a national struggle to address the injustices this system imposed.

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A growing population of African American readers helped spur a few individuals to challenge the 1902 legislation which created a free public library system in Louisville. One such person was Albert Meyzeek.

During a temporary assignment as principal of Central High School, Meyzeek, concerned about the lack of adequate reference and reading materials at his school, argued persistently, and persuasively, to the City Library Committee that African Americans should have access to this proposed system.

By the time the Louisville Free Public Library opened in 1905, its plan called for the establishment of a branch library for its “colored” citizens with funds already pledged by the wealthy industrialist, Andrew Carnegie.

Until the Carnegie building could be completed, the City rented three rooms of a private residence at 1125 West Chestnut Street, in the heart of Louisville’s predominantly black westside neighborhood. Above the door was a sign which read, “Knowledge is power.”

Carnegie gifts were instrumental in erecting and furnishing a dedicated library building which opened in 1908 on the Southwest corner of 10th and Chestnut

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Written by PH

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