A long journey for a library card

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Former Shaw University student receives card denied her 73 years ago

BY SARAH NAGEM
NEWS & OBSERVER/TNS

RALEIGH, N.C. — Pearl Thompson was a student at Shaw University in 1942 when she was told she couldn’t check out a book from Raleigh’s public library because she was Black.

Pearl Thompson approaches the checkout desk before receiving the library card she was denied decades ago.(PHOTOS BY TRAVIS LONG/RALEIGN NEWS & OBSERVER/TNS)
Pearl Thompson approaches the checkout desk before receiving the library card she was denied decades ago.
(PHOTOS BY TRAVIS LONG/RALEIGN NEWS & OBSERVER/TNS)

She was sent to the library’s basement, where she had to wait for a staff member to bring her the book she was assigned to read for a history class. Blacks weren’t issued library cards, so she had to stay in the basement to read it.

Seventy-three years later, Thompson finally has her library card.

She entered the Cameron Village Regional Library on July 2, aided by a walker, to attend a ceremony in her honor.

“It’s going to take me awhile to get to you,” Thompson told the library staff, “but it’s been a long journey anyway.”

Thompson, 92, grew up on Lenoir Street in Raleigh, the oldest of four children. She said her father was the first Black American doorman at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel downtown.

When her father died of pneumonia, Thompson said, her mother started working to support the family and pay her children’s college tuition.

History of libraries
Thompson can’t remember which book she was assigned to read for that class. But Shaw didn’t have it, so she went to the Olivia Raney library, although she knew it was only for Whites.

150710_metro05b“I expected to go in and get a book,” she said.

The Olivia Raney library was Raleigh’s first public library. A separate library was established in 1935 on Hargett Street to serve Blacks. That library eventually became the Richard B. Harrison library on New Bern Avenue, said librarian Wanda Cox-Bailey.

The Harrison library merged with the White libraries in the 1960s, Cox-Bailey said.

After she graduated from Shaw, Thompson taught in Raleigh’s black schools for 12 years. Then she moved to Ohio with her husband.

On her wish list
Thompson now lives in an assisted-living facility in Cincinnati. Her daughter, Deborah Thompson, said her mother has kidney disease and heart problems.

Thompson made a wish list of things she wants to do. On that list: Coming home to North Carolina for a visit. And getting the library card she was denied so many years ago.

She didn’t want people to make a big fuss over her. She became emotional as she recounted her experience as a young college student.

As a teacher, Thompson said, she was determined to give Black children every opportunity to read.

She wasn’t afraid to ask for what she needed to make that happen.

When a school principal in Raleigh said they were out of money, Thompson recalled, she went to the superintendent to ask for more.

A big truck showed up at the school, packed with paper, pencils, chalk, new desks and so much more, she said.

Not angry
Later, Thompson traveled around to the city’s Black schools to help students. If there was no classroom space for her, she’d set up shop wherever she could.

“I tried to expose them to everything I knew,” Thompson said of her students.

Ann Burlingame, deputy director of Wake County Public Libraries, said she was thrilled when Deborah Thompson reached out about getting a library card for her mother.

“I just felt like this woman was denied access to a library and a book,” Burlingame said. “I just wanted the opportunity to rectify that, not just for her but for us as the library system.”

Deborah Thompson said her mother loves to learn.

“That’s the legacy that she leaves,” she said.

Pearl Thompson could have spent the past seven decades being angry about what happened to her at the Olivia Raney library, which now serves as a local history library.
But that’s not her style.

“I don’t hold any kind of hate in my heart, because that doesn’t do it,” she said. “That doesn’t get you there.”

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