Kevin W. Johnson, vice president of the Friends of Johnson Branch Library, leads a group of scholars in a march around the James Weldon Branch Library at the annual Literacy Festival.
Seventy-one years ago on April 1, 1947, the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library was dedicated and named in honor of James Weldon Johnson, a poet, author, educator, songwriter, civil rights activist, leader of the NAACP and native Floridian.
He is probably best known for the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became known as the “Negro National Anthem.” The original one-room facility that housed 1,066 volumes was located at 1035 Third Ave. S. The 1,025 square-foot room was on the ground floor of the Masonic lodge and was leased to the city for $50 per month.
Until this time, St. Petersburg had only one library, the Carnegie Library, built in 1915 and redesignated Mirror Lake Branch in 1964. The library, located in the downtown area, was not open to the city’s black residents.
Andrew Carnegie, industrialist, business magnate and philanthropist, built more than 1,600 public libraries throughout the country with the stipulation that “all facilities he supported could not deny use by any persons because of their race, creed, or color.” His stipulation was not upheld in St. Petersburg.
It wasn’t until 1944 when the need for library services for African Americans was finally addressed that blacks were allowed to use the basement at the Carnegie Library but under no circumstances could they use the main floors. Previously, blacks could use a reading room with few books at the Campbell Park Center. When that facility closed, the community was left with no library.
In December 1944, a group of citizens formed a committee and worked together for several years, making a case for a library to serve the African-American community. On April 7, 1945, the committee discussed the need to form an interracial committee. Mrs. S.M. Carter, wife of the pastor of the First Baptist Institutional Church, was elected chairman of the committee. Their efforts resulted in an appropriation of $3500 for the library.
The library attempted to meet the needs of the community in every possible way. Storytimes, summer reading programs, public book reviews and even films were offered. The collection increased to 2,789 volumes with 1,821 registered borrowers.
It served the community at the Third Avenue location until 1979, when it was closed because of the city’s urban redevelopment project, which displaced hundreds of black residents from the Gas Plant area.
In 1981, the James Weldon Branch reopened in the newly built Enoch Davis Center at 1111 18th Ave. S. Of the city’s five public libraries, the Johnson branch was the only one housed within the confines of another building. According to an article in the Neighborhood Times in February 2002, the newly opened branch “boasted the largest African-American collection in Florida.”
In early 1990, one of the initial budget reduction proposals being considered for the Fiscal Year 1991 Budget was the closing of the Johnson Branch Library. In response, Kevin Johnson organized the James Weldon Johnson Friends of the Library, Inc. The group circulated petitions; the community rallied behind the group with more than 1,500 signing the petition and the library remained open.
In a letter to Kevin Johnson from Donald Brannon, deputy city manager for Leisure Services dated May 16, 1990, Brannon wrote: “It is my pleasure to report to you that the proposal to close the James Weldon Branch Library was not supported by City Manager Robert Obering.”
The Friends continue to support the library and recently hosted the 8th Annual James Weldon Johnson Community Library Literacy Festival. In 1996, the library was named Library of the Year by “Library Journal.”
In the summer of 2002, the Johnson Branch Library moved into its current location at 1059 18th Ave. S, adjacent to the Enoch Davis Center. The $2.7 million, 14,500-square-foot building housing about 40,000 volumes was the materialization of the dream of the Enoch Davis Expansion Task Force.
The facility features a computer center, a quiet room, and meeting, study, story hour and conference rooms. This facility stands as a monument to those who fought over the years to keep the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library open, and it remains a vital part of our community.