I AM: The first librarians at the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library

Helen Allen Edwards was a librarian for 32 years at the James Weldon Branch Library.

By Gwendolyn Reese

Leslie Burke, who had been the librarian at Gibbs High School, was the first librarian of the James Weldon Johnson Branch. The library opened in 1947 at 1035 Third Ave. S with 1,066 volumes. It was the only library service available to blacks at that time. Burke resigned in 1950 and was replaced by Helen Edwards.

Helen Allen Edwards was a librarian for 34 years. For 32 of those years, she served as the librarian at the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library. The library at the Third Avenue South location served the African-American community until 1979, when it was determined to have outgrown its space.

Another reason was the city’s urban redevelopment project, which had relocated hundreds of black people from the Gas Plant area to areas farther south, making the library less accessible to the black community. The library was closed for two years while the new facility was under construction.

During that time, Edwards worked in the children’s department at the main library. She returned to the Johnson Branch when it re-opened in 1981 at the Enoch Davis Center. With Edwards as the librarian, the Johnson Branch boasted the largest African-American collection in Florida.

The collection expanded to 2,789 volumes, and there were 1,821 registered users. She also established book reviews and children’s story hour. She retired in 1984. The quiet room is named in her honor.

Edwards was a native of St. Petersburg, born near the library in 1916. She attended Davis Elementary and Gibbs High School and graduated from Florida A&M University (then Florida A&M College). In the 1940s, she and another black teacher became the first blacks to use the reference material at the Mirror Lake Branch library with the stipulation that they would only sit in the basement. Edwards left teaching in 1950 when the city’s library system recruited her.

According to an article in the St. Petersburg Times, Edwards “was a member of one of St. Petersburg’s most colorful black pioneer families. She was fondly known as ‘Mother’ by her own five children, grandchildren, and hundreds of Southside children who utilized the library services over the years.”

Mamie Doyle Brown succeeded Edwards in 1984 and served as librarian at the Johnson Branch for six years, retiring in 1990. Before coming to the Johnson Branch, Brown was a library assistant for the St. Petersburg Public Library System.

The requirement for library assistants was a high school diploma and at least one year if college. The St. Petersburg Public Library System also administered the Civil Service examination. Applicants had to score more than 75 on the test, which consisted of questions in sections about books — fiction and nonfiction – authors, titles, publishers, reading comprehension, vocabulary, math, etc.

Library assistants worked either in technical or user services. In 1980, Brown worked in user services, answering questions that involved fact-finding in standard reference sources. She loved her work and frequently went beyond the call of duty.

In an article that appeared in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent in 1985, Brown shared that inquiries could be requests for poetry recitations, and once she received an inquiry regarding the Negro National Anthem. No problem. She walked into the back room of the library, closed the door, picked up the other phone and started singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Mary Hall succeeded Mamie Brown in January 1990, and when Pamela Peterson became the librarian at the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library in January 1991, it housed approximately 15,000 volumes.

Gwendolyn Reese


One Reply to “I AM: The first librarians at the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library”

  1. Charles Parker says:

    What an incredible story! What incredible librarians and women!

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