Looking Back: Charlemae Hill-Rollins

by We Need Diverse Books

alexandria library
The contents of the Library of Alexandria may have been intended more to display the splendor of Egypt at the time than the lesser goal of research, but this library also had a mandate to collect all the world’s knowledge at that time. The library staff was occupied with the task of translating these works onto papyrus paper and archiving them. Part of the librarians’ job description included a well-funded royal demand involving trips to the book fairs of the day in Rhodes and Athens; not so dissimilar to today’s acquisitions procedures (Bologna, Frankfurt, anyone?) Also, any books found on ships that came into the port were taken to the library, copied and stored. This makes me hopeful that there was an element of diversity in this splendid ancient bibliographic center.

I am a librarian. I know how much (or at times how frustratingly little) a modern librarian can influence the content and promotion in her library. I have just completed an annual book order and one of my guiding principles was diversity. I am fortunate that this happens to be one of the values of my school. I could not curate a series about the forerunners of diversity in children’s literature without including one or two librarians. There are many to chose from, but today’s focus lies with Charlemae Hill-Rollins.

Charlemae Hill-Rollins McCain Library and Archives University of Southern Mississippi
Charlemae Hill-Rollins
McCain Library and Archives
University of Southern Mississippi

In a poor, rural Mississippi community at the end of the 19th century, Charlemae Hill-Rollins was born, the oldest child of a farmer and a teacher. It was maybe her grandmother, a former slave, who had the greatest influence on her childhood. Her grandmother shared oral stories and her collection of books with her grandchildren. Rollins recalled her grandmother’s influence in More Books by More People: Interviews with 65 Authors of Books for Children: “She gave us all the books that belonged to her master who was the father of her children, one of whom was my father. We enjoyed the books in his library, even though most of them were medical books. But I would read anything and everything.”

Rollins began her Chicago library career in 1927, and six years later, she was named head of the children’s department of the new George Cleveland Hall Library, where she remained for 36 years.

Though all this took place ¾ of a century ago, her activism reads like so many present day diversity articles in School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly. In time her fame was to spread from her Chicago library, the first branch to be located in a black neighborhood and serving such a diverse population, across the nation. While pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Rollins wrote a research paper on representations of African Americans in children’s literature and their impact on children, which would eventually be published as the pamphlet The Negro in Children’s Books. This publication began the crusade for which I especially want to honor and acknowledge Rollins. Working to have children’s books depicting racist stereotypes removed from library purchasing lists, Rollins’ We Build Together: A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use was published by the National Council of Teachers of English in 1941. This pamphlet outlined criteria for the selection of literature relating to African Americans, one of the first writings of its kind and truly a precursor of our thrust in the We Need Diverse Books movement. She helped raise the level of consciousness among fellow librarians, teachers, and publishers to the need for more honest portrayals of African Americans in children’s literature.

we buildRollins became the ALA’s first black president in 1957. She retired in 1963 at the age of 66 but didn’t stop what had become her life’s passion. During her retirement she wrote many books of her own, including several YA biographies of black men and women. And in 1972 she was the first African American to receive an honorary lifetime membership in the ALA. Rollins’ role in promoting African Americans in children’s books deservedly earned her awards from library, education, and humanitarian organizations. Among other notable awards she received, was the Coretta Scott King Award in 1971 for her biography Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes. And it deserves our gratitude as we continue to promote Rollins’ values of improving the image of African Americans in children’s books and helping young patrons learn about their heritage.

Rollins said exactly what we are still saying — “Children as they are growing up need special interpretations of the lives of other peoples,” she maintained, “[and] must be helped to an understanding and tolerance. They cannot develop these qualities through contacts with others, if those closest to them are prejudiced and unsympathetic with other races and groups. Tolerance and understanding can be gained through reading the right books.”

Joanna Marple

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