A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Integrating Martinsville Memorial Library, Virginia, 1963

by on May 29, 2023

Many citizens in the Jim Crow South had to wage a lengthy battle simply to gain access to the public libraries in their towns and cities. Black residents held sit-ins, filed lawsuits, and some were even arrested and held in jail for attempting to use libraries that remained stubbornly whites-only even after Brown vs. Board declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional in 1954. Other times, the facility integrated much more quietly.

photo of three women around a table in front of book shelves. vintage image black/white.

Martinsville Library Staff 1963. Beth Mainiero Center. Photo courtesy Mainiero.

This was the case with Martinsville Memorial Library in Virginia, according to Elizabeth Long Mainiero, who was the director of the library at the time. Martinsville is in the southern part of Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains, 50 miles South of Roanoke and 50 miles north of Greensboro, North Carolina. Shortly after moving there from Ohio in 1963 with her husband and two children, Mainiero was appointed as the town’s first professional librarian by City Manager Julian Hirst.

As Director of Martinsville Memorial Library, her first task was to plan how the new library would be arranged. The collection was temporarily located in a house near where a new library was being constructed. The books would need to be moved in and organized, and the library formally re-opened to the public. After this, Mainiero planned to enhance public services.

The local Boy Scouts offered to help move the collection into the new building, but the large boxes of books were too heavy for them to manage alone. Therefore, the City Manager arranged for laborers from the local prison to assist. While a guard stood by with a rifle, Boy Scouts handed books to the prisoners in call number order from the temporary location. Prisoners packed the books in order on book trucks, then pushed the book trucks across the street and into the new library, where the Boy Scouts unpacked them and arranged them on the shelves.

a woman with her hand in a box with a book shelf in background. vintage image black/white.

Beth Mainiero moving books. Photo courtesy Mainiero.

Books in place, Mainiero was now ready to enlist the community’s help with a grand opening. She visited each of the six elementary schools in town and asked each principal if they would prompt their teachers to encourage children and parents to come to the opening. She requested that PTA leaders from each school pour tea and coffee during the event. “I did not know that my predecessor library head would not have gone to the ‘Negro’ elementary school,” she explained, adding that was the term used at the time. She had not even realized that the schools were segregated. The principal at the school for Black students asked in a heavy Southern accent: “Are you sure you want me to ask the PTA to help and people to come?” She confirmed that, of course, she was sure. “I didn’t realize what he was really asking. After all, I was brought up in New Jersey. In retrospect, I know that he was really asking if white people in town would be upset if ‘colored’
people… attended and helped with the opening.” Women and children from that principal’s school did come to the library opening and helped with the event. “I thought nothing of it, but when the affair was over some white society women were helping clean up afterwards in the kitchen. One said to another: ‘I didn’t know we could do it.’ I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘Have a social event with them.’”

Apparently, an integrated social event in a public facility was unprecedented in the segregated community. “Eventually I realized that I had inadvertently peacefully integrated Martinsville (or at least the library) in the early 1960s!” By 1964, the library had flourished so noticeably that Mainiero was presented with an award from the Book of the Month Club for the most improved library in the United States that year. The Governor of Virginia came to the award ceremony.

Today, the former Martinsville Memorial Library has been absorbed into the Blue Ridge Regional Library, which has several branches and a bookmobile. Mainiero, who moved on to library leadership positions in Maryland and Connecticut, has been retired for many years now and is writing her memoirs. After reading Desegregation in Northern Virginia Libraries (The History Press, 2023), Mainiero reached out to my coauthor Chris Barbuschak and I to tell us her story. She agreed to let me share it here, to add another piece to the puzzle of how libraries around the state of Virginia were integrated.

Authors note: Although there is a humorous element to this story, the fact that library access was withheld from Black Americans for generations is an epic injustice. Frederick Douglass said in his 1894 speech at the opening of the Manassas Industrial School: “To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature.” It is my hope that knowing more about this history can help us recognize patterns occurring today and mobilize us towards a better future.