If you ever drive down Dryades Street in New Orleans to the point where it intersects Philip, you will notice a beautiful old majestic building that is unique in its appearance as well as in its historical significance. This building was constructed in 1915 and was the first library opened for people of color. Yes, there was a Main Library and five branches available in 1915 but they could only be used by the white population and by black attorneys who were allowed to read or research law books only.
Leaders in the black community had been demanding for years that a branch library be provided for its Negro citizens but needed funds were said to not be available. It was not until James Hardy Dillard, the namesake of Dillard University, stepped forward and persuaded the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to pledge money for its construction as well as its furnishings that things began to turn around. At a cost of $25,000 the library was built by the foundation on a site whose land was donated by the city of New Orleans.
On Saturday, 24 October 1915, the Dryades Street branch library was dedicated. The opening ceremony took place in the large auditorium in the basement facing Dryades Street. Henry M. Gill, city librarian, opened the exercises by calling upon black civic leaders to speak to the large audience that was present. James Madison Vance declared how much his people appreciated the gift, but regretted there were not more books on the shelves written by people of color.
Dr. Robert E. Jones, chairman of the day, spoke on behalf of black doctors throughout the city while Sylvania F. Williams spoke of the special benefits the library would provide to thousands of school children. Rev. J. L. Burrell, who represented the churches, said the library was a worthy factor in the glory of God and Frank B. Smith dwelt upon the influence of the Negro attorney. The medical profession was represented by Dr. James T. Newman who read a list of names of Negro physicians and surgeons who had achieved the highest honors in their profession. Albert Workman spoke on behalf of the black labor organizations and was followed by Walter L. Cohen, the leading black businessman in the city.
Once the speeches commenced, the public was given a tour of the facilities. Delia Allen and Adelia Trent guided the visitors through the building which was equipped with 5,000 books but could potentially house 10,000 in all. The auditorium where the dedication was held was as beneficial to patrons as the library since it could be used for public meetings.
Meeting rooms would prove to be a very essential part of the building since they were used by various groups such as the Negro Board of Trade, Dryades Street YMCA, Young Men Colored Business Association, NAACP and the Negro and Study Club. As the years progressed, whenever nationally known blacks visited the city, this building would be included on the list of places to see. Such ditinguished men as Carter G. Woodson visited here in 1939 as well as Paul Robeson in 1942.
The Dryades Street Branch grew tremendously over the years as it was used by thousands of children and adults. As a result of its popularity, satellite locations began to develop across the city. In 1939, one was established in St. Peter Claver School and others were located in the various housing projects. Each had its own reading or book club for all ages.
As the black population grew, a need existed for a second library to be located in the downtown section of the city. The library board erected a temporary library in 1946 which was replaced by a brand new facility in May of 1954. It was dedicated as the Nora Navra Memorial and was located on St. Bernard Avenue.
The Dryades Street and Nora Navra branches were the only two libraries opened in the city solely for use by people of color because by 1955 the entire library system was desegregated, thanks to the efforts of Miss Rosa Keller.
The Dryades Street branch would remain opened to the public for fifty years. Severe damage brought on by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 would cause it to close. Shortly after, a fire damaged the building further and was too costly for the city to repair. It would remain vacant for years. Fortunately, the Dryades Street YMCA purchased the building and is using it for various community programs.
Sources: The Times Picayune 25 October 1915 p. 16-B; New Orleans Public Library/ Annual Report (1914-1915); Footprints of Black LA, Norman R. Smith; New Orleans States 9 February 1945 p.13 c.1; The Louisiana Weekly 8 May 1954 p.1