Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Our Public Library

Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Public Library, 1930s

Growing up in the 1960s, my brother and I visited the public library nearly every week. Sliding around the back seat of the car, pre-seat belt, we traveled across the city along streets named for great men like Lincoln.  My mother drove.

We always perked up when the car merged into a traffic circle with a Spanish-American War monument at its center.  That war lay in the deep unknown past.  But the various enterprises surrounding the circle were intensely familiar.  Coming first into view, a Congregational church with bright red doors.

"The Circle" -- 1980s

Further round the circle was the Artuso Pastry Shop, famous for its cannoli.  And then there was Chicken Delight.

“Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!” according to the radio jingle, which our mother never heeded.

Oh, how we longed for Chicken Delight, fried or barbecued, delivery or 15-minute pickup.  No pots or pans – “just open and eat!”

Too bad.  On to the library.

Mount Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Founded in 1904 with a gift from the industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, the library was located on the south side of the city in a neighborhood that had declined as de facto segregation set in.

At the time of Carnegie’s gift, grand houses and spreading elms lined the blocks that would surround the library.  Nearby, commerce bustled along “the Avenue,” as residents called it. 

A small African-American community also flourished on this side of town.  However, by the end of World War II the black population had multiplied and many middle and upper class white residents of the south side had moved across the railroad tracks to the north side.

I’m sure some white people wanted to take the library with them.  But Grace Greene Baker would have opposed that idea.



Grace and her husband, Herbert, came out of small-town Ohio – a town called Bellevue, about 70 miles west of Cleveland.  She had already lived in several cities by the time she arrived at ours.  That was because Herbert was a rising executive in the printing business who previously held positions in St. Paul, Buffalo and other places.

Born in 1861, Grace became deeply interested in civic affairs while in her mid-30s.  She volunteered first with the National Consumers League, a reform organization co-founded by Jane Addams.  The group tackled the minimum wage, child labor laws, and other social problems.  By the time the Bakers landed in our suburb in 1900, it came naturally to Grace to commit herself as a public servant.  She plunged in while rearing four children.

What called to Grace Baker?  Two things: children’s welfare and the public library, both quintessential initiatives of the Progressive Era.  I imagine her steering a Model A along the Bronx River Parkway, on the way to address the county legislature about juvenile delinquency, newsboys and truancy. 

Eventually the public library would consume all of Grace’s time.  She served as board president for nearly 20 years and led a campaign for a much-needed addition to the building. 

As fiercely as the local paper editorialized against the addition, Grace fiercely explained its importance.  Just imagine the space – an expansive children’s department filled with light, plus large meeting rooms where members of the community could discuss issues and listen to lectures.  In the 1930s, however, persuading people to vote for a bigger library was like trying to get a new high school.  No one wanted to pay.

Finally, the bond referendum passed in 1936.

The 1936 addition 

Four years later, the city bestowed upon Grace its “Good Citizen” award.  On top of that, one of the paneled meeting rooms in the library addition was named the Grace Greene Baker Community Room.  

I now realize that this is where my father took me, in 1969, to hear a young woman named Anne Moody who had recently published a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi.  Anne Moody was a civil rights activist who worked with the NAACP, CORE and SNCC.  It made sense for her to speak in our city so riven by race.  The room was packed.

She started by reading the first paragraph of her book:

I’m still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter’s plantation.  Lots of Negroes lived on his place.  Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers.  We all lived in rotten two-room shacks.

Often statues and spaces memorialize people whose contributions to public life are modest to imperceptible.  But Grace Greene Baker absolutely deserved that room, and many years later so did Anne Moody.

Original dust jacket

*Grace Greene Baker died in 1949 and is buried in Bellevue, Ohio.  
**Anne Moody (1940-2015)

1 comment:

  1. I remember telling the librarians I needed to look up the microfiche for October 15, 1958. They were very skeptical but I told them I was doing a report on Quemoy and Matsu, a detail I had picked up from the World Book. Turned out I was born on a pretty boring day in World History.
    I can still hear the creak of the floorboards and smell the smell of the library. The restrooms, by the way, were rumored to be a place where men went to engage in vice with each other. I don't know how I knew that but I did.

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