Auburn Avenue Research Library


A Brief Introduction to Libraries as a Public Good

Libraries in the United States began as the private collections of wealthy men, and slowly grew into the publicly funded libraries that we know today. The Auburn Avenue Branch of the Atlantic Public Library system began as one of the first libraries open to African American community in Atlanta. From it’s opening on July 25, 1921 the Auburn Avenue Branch started along its distinctive path as an invaluable anchor for culturally-informed public collections in the City of Atlanta. Over the decades, it has functioned as a repository for a full range of books and materials related to African American history and culture, and has now become a premier public research library, joining other research centers nationally in fulfilling critical roles as a cultural asset. The first African American professional librarian in the Atlanta Public Library system was Annie L. Watters McPheeters, who worked as the Director of the Auburn Avenue Branch, serving from 1936-1949. The library officially became desegregated in 1959 thanks to her efforts, with Irene Dobbs Jackson becoming the first African American to receive a library card.


Creating a Cutting Edge

Auburn Avenue Research Library, Present Day

Auburn Avenue Research Library, Present Day (Photo Courtesy of Auburn Avenue Research Library)

As noted above, in 1921 the Auburn Avenue Branch Library became one of the first libraries in the country designated for African Americans. In 1994, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History (AARL) became the first public research library on African American culture and history in the South. This distinction places AARL among the top research libraries in the United States with this mission, including in chronological order of origin:

  • The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center was established within the holdings of Howard University, founded in 1867. The collection began with the donation of the private library of African American theologian Dr. Jesse E. Moorland in 1914. He was an alumnus and trustee of the university. This collection, which became known as the Moorland Foundation, was a catalyst for the university to centralize materials related to the Black experience. While several librarians were part of the development of the collection, in 1930 Dorothy B. Porter was appointed as the director. Under her guidance over the next 40 years, the collection expanded substantially and flourished. A key donation during this era came in 1946, when attorney and activist Arthur B. Springarn contributed his large collection of books and other materials. In 1973, the collection was re-organized as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, named for these two original benefactors.
  • The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library was established in 1925 as the Division of Negro History, Literature, and Prints, a special collection of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library.The agreement for the New York Public Library was signed on May 23, 1895, to be anchored by collections from two former libraries that were not public libraries (Astor and Lenox) with funding from three foundations (Astor, Lenox, and Tilden). The signature facility to house the new combined collections was not completed until 16 years later with the building opening its doors on May 24, 1911. In the intervening years the library established the New York Free Circulating Library in February 1901, with Andrew Carnegie providing funding that same year to build a system of branch libraries in partnership with the city. The 135th Street Branch was opened in Harlem on January 14, 1905, and renamed in 1951 for African American poet and teacher Countee Cullen. In 1926, Puerto Rican-born scholar and bibliophile Arturo Alphonso Schomburg contributed his extensive personal library to the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, and served as the curator of the special collection from 1932 until his death in 1938. In 1940, the Division was renamed the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints. In 1972, the name was changed again, to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and designated a research library of the New York Public Library System.
  • The Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System was originally established in 1921 as the African American Branch at 333 Auburn Avenue. After several transitions, it officially re-opened its doors at 101 Auburn Avenue as a research library in April 1994. The Samuel W. Williams Collection on Black America (originally the Negro History Collection of non-circulating books) formed the foundation for the collection, along with various other collections, including, for example, a collection acquired through an adult education project jointly sponsored by the American Association of Adult Education, the American Library Association, and the Julius Rosenwald Fund.
  • The Amistad Research Center was originally established in 1966 by the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, to house the historical records of the American Missionary Association, an iconic abolitionist and interdenominational organization formed in 1846. In 1969, the Center became an independent non-profit organization and moved to Dillard University in New Orleans, finding ultimately a permanent home at Tulane University in 1987. With the American Missionary Association records forming the foundation for the Amistad Research Center, the collection expanded over the years to include a range of papers from individuals across many walks of life, focusing on the documentation and preservation of materials related to the history of the African Diaspora and civil rights.

Contribution of Key Actors


Annie L. Watters McPheeters

Annie L. Watters McPheeters (Photo Courtesy of Auburn Avenue Research Library)

Annie L. Watters McPheeters (1908 – 1994)

  • The first African American professional librarian in the Atlanta Public Library.
  • Born in Floyd County, Georgia, McPheeters moved to Atlanta to attend Clark College, where she received a B.A. in English. After graduation she received a B.S. in library science and later an M.S. in library science from Columbia University in New York.
  • McPheeters started her career as a teacher in the public schools of Georgia and South Carolina. In 1934, she was appointed in the Atlanta Public Library at the Auburn Avenue Branch as an assistant librarian and immediately began building the Negro History Collection.
  • In 1936, she was appointed a full librarian, becoming the first professional African American librarian in the Atlanta Public Library System.
  • McPheeters also published several books, including: Scarcity of Children’s Librarians in Public Libraries (1960) and a multivolume collection, Negro Progress in Atlanta, Georgia (1964 and 1972).
  • She remained a supporter of the Auburn Avenue Research Library throughout the remainder of her life. McPheeter’s story of dedication and excellence offers evidence of the larger story of African American women librarians who were trailblazers in creating, shaping, and advancing libraries in the African American community as a common public good.


Irene Dobbs Jackson

Irene Dobbs Jackson (Photo Courtesy of Spelman College Archives)

Irene Dobbs Jackson (1908 – 1999)

  • Born and raised in Atlanta in the Auburn Avenue neighborhood.
  • She was the first of the six Dobbs daughters to receive the B.A. degree from Spelman College. Graduating at the top of her class, she went on to receive an M.A. in French from the University of Grenoble (France).
  • After returning to Atlanta, she married Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Sr., a graduate of Morehouse College who had also received training from the Garrett School of Divinity at Northwestern University. In 1933, he became the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, where he was very active as well in politics and community action, and where he served as editor of a newspaper. In 1945, he brought his family back to Atlanta when he became the pastor of the iconic Friendship Baptist Church.
  • By 1956, Jackson was widowed and decided to return to France with her six children in tow to complete a PhD in French at the University of Toulouse (France).
  • After completing the degree in 1958, Jackson returned to Atlanta and accepted a position at Spelman as Professor French and Chair of the Department. In 1959, she entered the Central Atlanta Public Library and became the first African American to receive a library card.


Samuel W. Williams

Samuel W. Williams (Photo Courtesy of Auburn Avenue Research Library)

Samuel W. Williams (1912 – 1970)

  • Born in Chicot County, Arkansas.
  • He received a B.A. in philosophy from Morehouse College and master of divinity degree from Howard University with further study from the University of Chicago.
  • He was active in several civil rights organizations (e.g., the Southern Christian Leadership Council, where he was a founding member and vice president; the Community Relations Commission, where he was Vice Chair; the Atlanta Summit Leadership Conference, where he was a founder; and the Atlanta Branch of the NAACP, where he served as president).
  • Williams joined the faculty of Morehouse College in 1946 as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, where he taught future leaders, such as: Samuel DuBois Cook, who would become President of Dillard University; Maynard H. Jackson, Jr., who would become the first African American mayor of the City of Atlanta; and Martin L. King, Jr, who would become the recognized leader of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.
  • After his death in 1970, the Atlanta Public Library renamed the Negro History Collection of Non-Circulating Books the Samuel W. Williams Collection on Black America on November 21, 1971.

Selected References

Amistad Research Center. 9 August 2017.

“Andrew Carnegie.” 10 August 2017.

“Annie L. McPheeters (1908 – 1994).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 August 2017.

At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2015.

Auburn Avenue Research Library. 9 August 2017.

“Benjamin Franklin’s Junto and Lending Library of Philadelphia.” 9 August 2017.

“A Case Study: Atlanta.” A History of US Public Libraries. Digital Public Library of America. 7 August 2017.

“The Countee Cullen Library.” 10 August 2017.

“First Public Libraries.” A History of US Public Libraries. Digital Public Library of America. 7 August 2017.

“History of the New York Public Library.” 10 August 2017.

“Irene “Renie” Dobbs Jackson, 1908-1999.” 10 August 2017.

“Jackson, Maynard Sr. (1898-1953).” 10 August 2017.

The Library Company of Philadelphia. 9 August 2017.

Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. 9 August 2017.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 9 August 2017.

The Spelman College Archives.

Wells, Rosa Marie. “Samuel Woodrow Williams, Catalyst for Black Atlantans, 1946-1970” (1975). ETD Collection for AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library. Paper 687.


Page Author: Jacqueline Jones Royster, Dean, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts

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