The Right to Read…The Dryades Street Library (1915-1965)

Dryades Street Library- 1915 

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


13 thoughts on “The Right to Read…The Dryades Street Library (1915-1965)

  1. I remember as a young man , there were contests for summer reading. each individual who read 8 books over the summer was awarded a certificate. I have my certificates I earned in the book reading club at Nora Narva Library.

  2. My sisters and I had weekly trips to the Dryades library during the summers. The trips required a bus ride that was an adventure of its own. We’d walk up those majestic stairs that made you feel that you were going someplace special and important. The librarians always had a storytelling or other book-related activity waiting for the children. Afterwards, we’d sit and read under the high ceilings–the reading room was so cool compared to the sweltering temperature outside. We’d check out as many books as we could and then head back home on the bus. Later, in the 50s, we would occasionally use the Broadmoor branch on Washington Ave. and Dorgenois. Although it was on the “black” side of the street, it was originally intended to serve the folks on the other (white) side of Toledano. I never saw many black children there and believe that my dad, who had a drugstore in the same block as the library, had personally demanded that the staff serve us respectfully. When I taught at Booker T. Washington in the 60s, my students reported that they were often told by library staff not to touch the books at Broadmoor because they left black marks. A number of us adults explained to the students that we would handle the problem and we did.

    • Just had to reply…Dryades St. Library was one of my favorite places. Dad didn’t like seeing me sitting around reading so I’d go to the library where I could read in peace. Early 60’s. It was really nice.
      On to 1951.. Washington Ave. and Dorgenois. 1st. grade. I could read very well… Dick and Jane was too slow, one day I got away from my sitter whose house was quite some distance from where I lived and went exploring this new neighborhood and to my surprise there was this place up the street and around the corner that had lots of books… It was that library at Washington and Dorgenois. No problem getting in. The kids in there didn’t look like me, I was there for the books not looking for playmates.I couldn’t stay long because I’d be missed by my sitter. I saw other kids leaving with books so my next move was to leave with some books also. The lady at the desk gave me a card of some sort to fill out. I did so to the best of my ability.There was a problem, a signature was required… I could print my name, I don’t think I knew what cursive was at that time. After two failed attempts to give her what she needed the lady said sorry kid. I was crushed! Making it back to my sitters,she noticed something was wrong. I told her the story and I was on my way back to that library. I almost had to run to keep up with her. I don’t think my Aunt (sitter) raised her voice and within minutes I was making my selections. I walked out with my first library card,five excellent books and a big smile.
      I went to Mr. Champ Clark 8th. grade English, Woodson. I also remember Mr. Will Stephens Journalism “64”
      Thank you for posting..

      • Champ Clark was my uncle. When I began teaching at B.T. Washington, he was also on the faculty. He sort of served as my protector, although I could pretty well take care of myself. Will Stephens, Kenneth Malveaux, Viola King, Luther Higginbotham, Bernard Raphael,Nell Rose LaPierre, Richard English,Estelle Turpin, Maurice Martinez, and Ernest Chachere were among the many wonderful educators at BTW. Charles Rousseve was our principal. Sadly, the school has been partially demolished.

  3. We must nerver forget the proactive efforts and genteel smiles of welcome from Ms. Rousseve, librarian at Nora Norva Library on St. Bernard Avenue, who motivated many 7th ward children to read, to participate in summer reading programs, and who sent many racist bigots (who opposed the library) to hell and made them look forward to the trip. Ms. Rousseve, and her family, did so much for literacy and change for all of us.

  4. Who were the first African-American librarians for New Orleans Public Library? Mrs. Rousseve, I hear, worked at Library 9/Nora Navra so she would be first, but I hear that Mrs. Geraldine Dave Vaucresson was the first African-American librarian to work at a white branch at the behest of the library director to once and for all desegregate and integrate the library branches into one system for all people, not just whites and two branches as afterthought for black people?

    • Yes, Geraldine Dave Vaucresson, was the first black librarian to intergrate the public libraries in Orleans Parish. Mrs. Vaucresson just passed away on September 20th of this year. Mrs. Rousseve was greatly admired at Nora Navra but the two ladies I just named in the last email would have been your two first librarans of color in New Orleans.

  5. …Indeed Dryades was opened in 1915 so were there African-American librarians there?…..This is too important to not know; we must get all the info we can on this.

    • Yes, Mr. Fourroux, there were African-American librarians at the Dryades Street Branch when it opened in 1915. They were Delia Louisa Allen and Adelia Trent. It appears though that Adelia Trent died just 6 years later in 1921.This would make an interesting article in the near future so thank you for asking the question.

      • Through research on l have discovered that l am related to Adelia Trent. I am delighted to see her remembered here. I don’t have any other information to add but would love to know more. Interestingly, librarians seem to run in the family.

  6. Lolita,

    Thanks for clarifying the history for me for everyone here. It shows that Creoles have had a long walk to end segregation starting with black only libraries up to desegregation of all libraries.

    I do hope CreoleGen will follow up and expand on the history of New Orleans’ libraries, public and university where so many people have contributed to the South’s Creole history.

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