Douglass Cover.png

Written by Keloni Parks, Reference Librarian, Main Library
Above image: The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Branch Libraries Scrapbook, (1940), Douglass Branch Library, pg. 59.

In the early-to-mid 1900s, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County had two branches for Black community members, the Douglass Branch Library in Walnut Hills and the Stowe Branch Library in the West End. Relics from this history, including photographs, are on view at the West End Branch Library during May as part of the Black Branches: Stowe, Finley, and the West End exhibit. Here’s a peek of the display.

Douglass Branch Library

Located in Frederick Douglass Elementary School, the Douglass Branch Library opened in 1912 and was the first library for Black residents north of the Ohio River. Although the newly opened Walnut Hills Branch Library was only five blocks away, and the Public Library of Cincinnati didn’t prohibit Black customers, it was believed that they would be better served at the Douglass location. 

During its 42 years of service to the community, it had five branch librarians, Mary G. Finley, being its most well-known. She was the branch’s fourth librarian, and managed the branch the longest, from 1927 to 1948. After managing the Douglass location for 21 years, she became the branch librarian at the Stowe Branch Library location. 

Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Branch Libraries Scrapbook, (1940), Douglass Branch, pg.60.

Stowe Branch Library

Eleven years after opening Douglass, the Stowe Branch Library opened in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Public School for Negroes, becoming the second location of the Public Library of Cincinnati for Black cardholders. Like Walnut Hills, the West End already had a library, the Dayton Street Branch, but its large Black community near West Seventh and Gest streets justified its creation. 

Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Branch Libraries Scrapbook, (1940), Stowe Branch, pg. 61.

When the branch opened, it struggled to register borrowers since many of the residents were new to Cincinnati, and often illiterate. The school was a beacon of light for the community, which was considered congested and problematic by social services and law enforcement. 

Stowe’s first librarian was Hattie Mae Walker, who worked at the branch for 25 years. Walker believed library collections should be adjusted for the communities they serve. She felt that it was important for Black people to know about the “accomplishments of their own race.” Hence, many of the books at the Stowe Branch were by and about Black people.

Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Branch Libraries Scrapbook, 1940, Stowe Branch, pg. 61

Attracting Customers

When both branches opened, they struggled to attract adult customers. Many adults didn’t know that the library was available for them too. In order to spread the word, the library advertised and gave talks at local churches. Walker, the wife of a pastor and an attendance officer for public schools, facilitated reading classes for adults at Stowe. She carefully selected books that wouldn’t be perceived as childish but were appropriate for emerging readers. 

From 1912 to 1935, Douglass’ collection grew from 2,000 volumes to nearly 5,000, and circulation increased from 10,124 to 40,677. In October 1939, Stowe circulated 7,421 books, and almost half of them were borrowed by adults. 

Branch Closings

Walker retired in 1948, and Mary G. Finley took her position until the Stowe Branch closed in 1961. When the Dayton Street and Stowe branches closed to merge and become the Lincoln Park Branch Library (now the West End Branch Library), Finley became its first branch manager. 

The Douglass Branch closed seven years prior to Stowe, in 1954. Its building, which was located at Alms Place and Chapel Street, was demolished in 1981. The building that housed the Stowe school and branch still exists and is where Fox19's studio is located now.

For viewing hours of the Black Branches: Stowe, Finley, and the West End exhibit visit the West End Branch information page

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