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Listen now to the 2013 CPL program featuring Timuel Black, Linda Johnson Rice and Adam Green in an engaging conversation of how the Great Migration shaped their lives and the city of Chicago.
Librarians work to change the lives of adults and children by providing access to books, computers, and other media and resource materials. Some librarians do more than this. Vivian G Harsh was one of those librarians. Born on May 27, 1890, little of her childhood is known. She was a native of Chicago and lived in the city for most of her life. Her career as a librarian began after graduating high school in the early 1900s. At the age of nineteen, Harsh was a junior clerk on the road to making history at CPL. She left Chicago briefly to study at Simmons Library School in Boston, Massachusetts. After receiving her degree, Harsh came back home to continue her work.
Harsh’s dedication to her career made history in 1932 when she was appointed director of George Cleveland Hall Library. This was the first time a women or a person of color directed a branch of the CPL system. Harsh came in with a clear goal in mind. Hall Library was going to be a community and educational outreach center. She had many ways of achieving her dream. Her first move--establish the Special Negro Collection. There needed to be a space in CPL for African American history and literature. If proper education on African American lives was not going to be provided by the school systems, Harsh would bring it to the libraries. She traveled throughout the South looking for pieces to place in the Collection.
Harsh did more than open her collection. She opened up a variety of clubs for black history, literature, and drama. She brought a literature forum to Hall Library and allowed for people to hold debates on prominent topics of the time. Space was opened up for art exhibits and storytelling workshops. Senior citizens were encouraged to interact with the library. All of this was done with the help of Charlemae Hill Rollins, a black children's librarian. Together, Harsh and Rollins changed the face of Hall Library to be more inclusive.
The twice monthly literature forum was so popular that big name authors flocked to attend its meetings, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, Horace Clayton, and Margaret Walker. Added to this influential crowd is every activist, leader, and thinker to come through Bronzeville in the 1930s and 1940s. Hall Library was a safe haven for intellectuals, children, and everyone in between.
Vivian G. Harsh died in 1960. Her legacy shaped Bronzeville and Chicago as a whole. Because of her trailblazing efforts, more and more African Americans and women have been able to make their own mark on Chicago Public Libraries. The Vivian G. Harsh Collection for Afro American History and Literature was founded to honor her. VGHS works to keep her passion alive by supporting the archives, exhibit spaces, and events. She strove to keep African American history alive, and we will continue to do the same.
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