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Ruth W. Brown

Ruth Winifred Brown (1891–1975) was a progressive librarian who fought for intellectual freedom and championed civil rights in her hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Brown was born in Hiawatha, Kansas, on July 26, 1891. She attended high school in California and then moved to Oklahoma where she graduated from Northwestern State Normal School in 1910. In 1915 she graduated from the University of Oklahoma. In November 1919 she was hired as the librarian in the Bartlesville Public Library, a Carnegie library which opened in 1913. She held this post until she was relieved of her duties in 1950 on the baseless accusation that she was a communist when, in fact, she was fired because of her desegregation activities.[1]

Brown helped established the Committee on the Practice of Democracy in Bartlesville in 1946. This was the first CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) group south of the Mason–Dixon line. Miss Brown is nationally recognized as the first librarian to receive assistance from the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Association.[2][3]

The original Bartlesville Public Library, which was built with a Carnegie library grant. Ruth W. Brown worked there.

Contents

Personal lifeEdit

Brown was born in Hiawatha, Kansas, in 1891 to Silas and Jennie Brown, two New England transplants. She lived with her parents and brother Merrit in Kansas until the family moved to California where Brown went to high school. She graduated from Northwestern State Normal School in 1910. In 1915 she graduated from the University of Oklahoma.

Brown taught in Eufaula and Nowata but chose not to continue in the profession. Instead she wanted to move back home to be closer to her parents, especially her mother who was confined to a wheelchair. In 1919 she was hired as the Bartlesville Public Library librarian. Although Brown never married, she did attempt to adopt two sisters who were orphaned. The welfare agency was unwilling to place them with Brown who was unmarried. The eldest, Mildred "Holly" Holiday, ran away from her abusive foster parents when she was eighteen and went back to live with Brown. Holly's sister Ellen then ran away to live with Brown who was finally able to adopt the youngest girl.[1]

Professional lifeEdit

In 1919, Brown became the director of the Bartlesville Public Library, a position she held until her dismissal in 1950. In 1920, Brown was elected secretary of the Oklahoma Library Association and then served as treasurer in 1926. In 1931 she was elected its president. Brown was a library advocate during the Depression and provided useful materials for the unemployed men in the community as well as their families. She also documented how her materials were used, sometimes in great detail. For example, in 1931, she reported that the library’s collection of 20,062 volumes had been used 13.19 times by every person in her service area. She was also a fervent believer in the principle of "equity of access" with her commitment to racial equality in the use of the public library.[1]

ControversyEdit

The battle between the American Legion and librarian Ruth W. Brown over materials in the Bartlesville Public Library (BPL) revealed the racial tensions in 1950s Oklahoma and the use of McCarthyist tactics to counter the forces of integration. Brown resigned from her job at the BPL following allegations of subversive Communist activity threatening the "American way of life", as it was put by one of her antagonists, the postmaster and library board chairman E. R. Christopher. Bartlesville's elite resorted to censorship and suppression to silence the proponents of racial justice and equality and rid the library of supposedly subversive material. McCarthyism was an effective means to ensure the preservation of Bartlesville's conservative power structure.[2]

Activities leading to dismissalEdit

Brown had long worked for equal rights for all citizens. As early as the 1920s she was working to allow equal access to the library for African-Americans.[4] In 1946, after the observing how African-American soldiers fought in the army for rights they were denied at home, Brown joined the Committee on the Practice of Democracy (COPD).[4] The COPD worked to improve "relations among people of all races; more particularly, to foster improvement of conditions arising out of discrimination based on race, creed, or color."[4] Later the same year, the Bartlesville chapter of COPD decided to affiliate with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) becoming the only chapter of CORE below the Mason–Dixon line.[5] The group quickly went into action working to recruit an African-American doctor to live and work in the black community of Bartlesville.[6] They, together with the YWCA, sponsored interracial conferences and seminars featuring black and white speakers.[6]

In 1939, only 99 of the 774 Southern public libraries provided services for African American patrons.[7] Though these libraries were under the doctrine of “separate but equal”, African American libraries received inadequate reading materials, short hours, and minimal budgets.[7] In the Bartlesville Public Library, Brown had been providing service to African Americans since the 1920s.[4] Records show borrower's names in the registry and a small number are identified as "colored". By 1950, the library subscribed to Ebony and Negro Digest.[4] Apparently, Brown was also interested in integrating the children's story time but was dissuaded from doing so by the library commission.[4] She then turned her attention to an educational exhibit on "Negro Culture from Africa to Today".[4] On a personal note, Brown was pushing the cultural norms and limits in many ways. She upset the entire community when she took two female, African-American teachers to a local diner in downtown Bartlesville.[4] The diner refused to serve them and Brown and her companions staged what became known as a "sit-in" during the 1960s Civil Rights protests.[4] She took African-American friends with her to church and promoted a lecture by Bayard Rustin, an African-American Quaker pacifist.[4] Almost immediately the leaders of the community began to work to remove Brown.[6]

A citizens' committee was formed to work towards her dismissal.[6] Though it now seems apparent that the true reason behind the anger in the community was a backlash against integration, at the time even the city leaders and commission realized that Brown could not be fired because of her political views and her civil rights activities as they all took place on her own time.[6] Instead, the citizen's group against Brown attacked her for having supposedly subversive materials in the library.[6] The library board was asked by the city commission to perform a complete examination of the library's collection and the general operations and work ethic of Brown.[6] After a thorough examination, the library board reported that they could not find any evidence of subversive materials or subversive teachings.[6] On March 9, 1950, The Bartlesville paper, the Examiner-Enterprise, published a picture of the materials in question.[6] The picture showed a pile of copies of The Nation and The New Republic (liberal magazines that were now being questioned but which had been subscribed to by the library for years) with two books on top.[6] The first book was "The Russians: The land, the people and why they fight" and other was pictured without its dust jacket or any library markings.[6] There was never any acknowledgement or admittance by the paper of where this picture was taken. It had not been authorized by the library board and the books on top could never again be located.[6] The library board, the American Library Associations' Intellectual Freedom Committee and Brown were locked in a battle with the Bartlesville city leaders.[8]

On July 10, the city commission thanked the library board for its service and summarily dismissed them all.[6] A new board was immediately appointed which supported the city's position regarding Brown. The campaign to fire her was almost complete and though "everyone knows what they are really fighting" as Brown later commented to a friend, her opponents chose McCarthy era scare tactics as a more viable way to rid the city of her progressive views on racial equality.[6] Brown was interviewed by the city commission on July 25, 1950. She refused to answer questions about her private life except in writing at her attorney's request.[6] When asked about having the allegedly subversive materials (The New Republic, The Nation, Soviet Russia Today) in the library she responded that they were three of seventy-five publications to which she subscribed. Further, she continued, she did not feel she should censor what her public chose to read and that she had subscribed to them for 15 or 20 years. However, in spite of no clear evidence of subversion, she was fired the same day.[6][9]

Though the Bartlesville commissions' public position was that Brown was fired for insubordination, to the outside it appeared she had been fired for trying to protect the library's position of intellectual freedom and the right to free speech.[6] A group of supporters, calling themselves the Friends of Miss Brown, tried to pursue her cause in court but were unsuccessful due to the lack of constitutional standing. Though she was unsuccessful, her Friends managed to keep her firing in the public eye for quite some time. The Oklahoma Library Association as well as the ALA and the ACLU all protested the attack on intellectual freedom and Bartlesville continued to be scrutinized on a national level.[6] This attention surprised and somewhat embarrassed the town which wished to go back to the way things were and end the bright and unpleasant spotlight on Bartlesville.[10]

On March 11, 2007, a bronze bust of Brown was unveiled at the Bartlesville Library and a library scholarship fund was established in her honor.[10]

In popular cultureEdit

The events in Columbia Picture's 1956 movie Storm Center were largely fictional, but the character played by Bette Davis was based on Ruth Brown and her struggle with the county commission over communist literature.[11]

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c Robbins, L.S.(2000). "The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown". Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.
  2. ^ a b Robbins, L. S. (1996). "Racism and censorship in Cold War Oklahoma: the case of Ruth W. Brown and the Bartlesville Public Library". Southwestern Historical Quarterly, (1), 18.
  3. ^ See also Bartlesville Library: Miss Brown
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Robbins, Louise S. The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
  5. ^ Robbins, Louise S. (2007). "Responses to the Resurrection of Miss Ruth Brown: An Essay on the Reception of a Historical Case Study". Libraries & the Cultural Record 42 (4). p.423
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Robbins, L. S. (1996). Racism and censorship in cold war Oklahoma: The case of Ruth W. Brown and the Bartlesville public. Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 100(1)
  7. ^ a b Robbins, Louise S. The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000 p. 38
  8. ^ "Miss Ruth Brown". Bartlesville Public Library. Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  9. ^ Caute, David (1978). The Great Fear: the Anti-Communist purge under Truman and Eisenhower. London: Secker and Warburg. p. 454. ISBN 0-436-09511-4. 
  10. ^ a b Robbins, Louise S. (2007). "Responses to the Resurrection of Miss Ruth Brown: An Essay on the Reception of a Historical Case Study". Libraries & the Cultural Record 42 (4).
  11. ^ American Library Association (N.D.). Storm Center. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/tools/storm-center

External linksEdit

  • Bartlesville Public Library
  • American Library Association page on the movie "Storm Center" which was based on Brown's life
  • "Censors, Firing Hit At Session of Librarians". Chicago Daily Tribune. 4 February 1951. 
  • Gilstrap, Max K. (3 March 1951). "Battle of Bartlesville The Wide Horizon". Christian Science Monitor. 
  • Henderson, James W. (December 15, 1950). "Ruth Brown's Dismissal Shocks Former Bartlesville Resident". Library Journal. 75. p. 2139. 
  • Robbins, Louise S. (2000). The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 
  • Robbins, Louise S. (2007). "Responses to the Resurrection of Miss Ruth Brown: An Essay on the Reception of a Historical Case Study". Libraries & the Cultural Record. 42 (4). 
  • Wiegard, Wayne (June–July 1999). "This Month 49 Years ago..". American Libraries: 142.