Today’s Hack Library School blog post, Sweat the Small Stuff, stirred up fond memories of my first library job at Southeast branch, Greensboro Public Library. I was a high school junior working 20 hours a week as a library page for $1.25 per hour (it was the early 70’s, and the library system got a special dispensation from the city to pay less than the minimum wage of $1.65 per hour because, well, it was library work).
Monday thru Thursday evenings, I came in and shelved books and read card catalogs and shelves. But on Saturdays, I worked a full 8-hour shift doing “other things,” cleaning the parking lot (teenagers “hung out” in the parking lot in Friday nights and left trash), washing glass doors and windows (the librarians called it “windexing”), and using hot soapy water to clean dust off of shelves. Amazing how much dust accumulates underneath those books! I’d start in the 000’s, and over several weeks make my way to 999, fiction, the reference section, children and juvenile collection, and back to the 000’s. Without doubt, I learned the Dewey Decimal System, but actually physically cleaning each section also conveyed to our patrons the idea that somebody cared about the place, about the books, and about keeping it presentable for library users, or so the librarians assured me.
It has been many moons since I visited that library, now known as the Vance H. Chavis Lifelong Learning Branch Library (Vance Chavis taught my father at Dudley Sr. High and was my principal at Lincoln Street Jr. High (now known as The Academy at Lincoln). Somebody should do a wikipedia page on him). I always thought the building should have been named for Helen Walden, the head librarian who transferred along with the original collection from the Carnegie Negro Library on the Bennett College campus. But Mr. Chavis was on the City Council after his years as a noted educator and I’m certain he worked hard to get and keep the funding for the Southeast branch. Anyway, that’s the way it goes down south. Several years later I visited with Mrs. Walden at her home and she lamented about the books in the original collection that were ultimately destroyed in the consolidation. She smiled when I told her I was planning to retire early and go back into librarianship.
I swiped this photo from the branch website:
p.s. The motto for the branch is “The library in the community and the community in the library.” Sounds rather Ranganathian, doesn’t it? The “first branch” is also home to Greensboro Public Library’s first computer lab and houses what remains of an extensive African-American collection of both fiction and nonfiction.
Addendum. More on Vance Chavis for the wikipedia page (Civil Rights Digital Library, University of Georgia):
Chavis, Vance H., 1906-1998
Vance H. Chavis was born January 14, 1906, in Wadesboro, North Carolina. He attended Presbyterian Church affiliated parochial schools in Anson County through the 7th grade then received a scholarship to attend prep school and college at what was then known as Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) in Charlotte, NC, also affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
He continued his education at Johnson C. Smith University, earning a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. At North Carolina Central University he received a master’s degree in Public Health. He also studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina A&T State University, and the University of Wisconsin.
As a part of his graduate studies, Chavis was one of three students sent for field training in New Orleans, Louisiana as part of the Health Education Program for the New Orleans Department of Health. Under the direction of M.E. Kossack, City Supervisor of Public Health Education, Chavis from North Carolina Central University, and Ada Boyd, and Vernon H. Olson from the University of North Carolina were assigned to analyze health problems in New Orleans and develop health programs. Chavis, as the only African American student, was assigned to the low-cost housing projects of Calliope, Magnolia, Lafitte, and St. Bernard, which were segregated from housing projects designated for the White population. The main objective was to plan and conduct chest X-rays and survey the status of tuberculosis in the community. Another objective was to assist in the organization of groups and programs to address other health needs in the community, such as venereal disease and child health issues. Chavis organized and promoted the mobile chest X-raying unit, conducted discussions with tenant leaders to address issues, scheduled presentations and films for the community, and worked with various public health nurses assigned to the various clinics and programs available to the tenants of the projects.
Chavis taught physics, general science, and biology at James B. Dudley High School from 1929 to 1955. Of his time at Dudley Sr. High, Chafe wrote,
None exerted a greater influence on generations of Greensboro black young people than Nell Coley and Vance Chavis, two teachers at Dudley. Both openly announced their participation in the NAACP and encouraged others to emulate their protest activities. Both also urged students to take home to their parents the message of registering to vote, Chavis even having students in his class address envelopes to prospective voters. By their own examples, each held forth a standard of pride and assertiveness that students found hard to forget. Chives taught physics, but, as one student recalled, he also taught the importance of “not selling one’s soul.” Continually, he implored students “not to go in the back way at the movie theaters and climb all those steps in order to pay for segregation,” Chavis helped organize students to support the theater boycott during the 1930’s, reminding them the he himself refused to ride the buses and railroad because of his unwillingness to accept any form of Jim Crow. (Chafe, 1980.)
In 1955 Chavis was appointed assistant principal at Lincoln Junior High School, He was promoted to principal in 1957 and remained in that position until his retirement in 1969. Chavis was known first as an educator but was also a leader in the local civil rights movement. He was an early member of the NAACP in the 1930s, and in 1949 was integral in organizing the Greensboro Citizens Association. He was also an active member of the Democratic Party at both state and local levels, serving on the state Democratic executive committee and as a precinct chairman. From 1969 to 1973, he was a member of the Greensboro City Council.
Chavis received numerous awards and honors, including Johnson C. Smith University’s Alumni Centennial Award for outstanding achievement in community relations and a certificate of meritorious service from the City of Greensboro for his efforts on the Redevelopment Commission; Chavis was the first African American male in the United States to be appointed to a redevelopment commission. The Southeast Branch of the Greensboro Public Library was renamed in his honor. Vance H. Chavis died on November 30, 1998 at the age of 92.”
His education and formative years
“My education started in the Presbyterian parochial school in the town where I was born, Wadesboro, North Carolina, which is about fifty miles east of Charlotte. From this Presbyterian connection, of course, I was motivated to go to college. In the meantime, however, we had no high schools for blacks in Wadesboro. They built a large one there for, for the whites, at that time about a hundred thousand dollar brick building, which was very, almost luxurious at that time. They built an eight or ten thousand dollar frame building for the blacks. Of course, we only went to the seventh grade. So after the completion of the seventh grade, I went to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, which was then Biddle University, where I did my high school work. And this of course came through my church affiliation, and I received a scholarship to go to Johnson C. Smith. And I went there in high school and also four years in college. I finished college in 1929. I majored in chemistry. But being a person of, I guess you would say down low on the economic ladder, I had sense enough to realize that I would probably have to teach. So, fortunately, I took enough hours in education so that I had a Class A certificate for teaching in North Carolina. After completion of my degree, I applied for a teaching position in Charleston, West Virginia; Winston-Salem; Greensboro; and Durham. You see, I always wanted to go to a pretty good place, because the salaries were better in these places.” (Link, 1988)
Comparing Dudley to other schools
“I feel that Dudley High School, along with [Simon G.] Atkins High School [Winston- Salem], and one or two others, were comparable to the best high schools in North Carolina. Dudley had an excellent structure; it was comparable to the best in ’29 and ’30 and ’40. We had very good facilities. It was not equal to what was Greensboro High School then. A lot of the science equipment I found there came from the abandoned high school which was on Cedar Street, prior to their moving to Grimsley. So we had a lot of old equipment, some of it wouldn’t work, but some of it would work today if it’s still there. But I think the faculty was excellent. At that time, you didn’t have too many people from North Carolina even teaching at Dudley. Dudley had a great variety in its faculty; we had people who had finished at the University of Pennsylvania; we had people who came from Howard University, Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pennsylvania; and we had a teacher from Morehouse. I was the only one from Johnson C. Smith, but we had two Fisk graduates. So, you see that our faculty came from all over the United States. We had a teacher that at one time came from Southern California.” (Pfaff, 1979)
“One of the things I noticed, in going through the school board minutes, was it seemed to me that in the period ’54 to ’56, there was enormous—there was an enormous increase in activity by the Lincoln and Dudley PTAs [Parent Teacher Associations], in terms of pressing with urgency and with assertiveness—not militancy, but assertiveness.” (Chafe, 1973)
“Well, I think Dudley played a very important role. It was highly respected in the black community. The teachers were respected. In fact, teachers then were respected more, I think, than they are now. They held maybe high positions and were held in greater esteem by the public, even the white public, and by the students more so than now. I don’t know why, but I think that was true. One thing unique about Dudley was that in order to get the faculty, we had to 7 reach out all over this country. And surprisingly maybe to you, of the blacks who did finish college in the North, as we called it, northeast, they could not get employment in New York or Philadelphia or New Jersey, so those who did complete college had to come south. So, as a result, we had a teacher who finished [University of] Southern Cal[ifornia], we had one who finished Penn, University of Pennsylvania that is. And of course the others had come from all over the United States from all the black schools: Tuskegee [Institute, Alabama], Morehouse [College, Georgia], Talladega [College, Alabama], Wilberforce [University, Ohio] and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and from the schools in North Carolina. WL: So you had a great diversity and a quite talented– VC: Yeah, quite talented. But now you find, I think, if you were to examine the faculty–now, I am presuming this–that most of them would be more or less local people from the schools in North Carolina, primarily. Which means–which, there’s nothing wrong in that, except maybe you’d more ideas where you have a greater variety and people with different attitudes and mores and points of view to add to the total culture there at Dudley. I think that it was an asset.” (Link, 1988)
On Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board
“I may add further, at that time, integration was not a problem. What they were trying to do, more or less, was trying to get back to the Plessy [v. Ferguson] decision, that is, equal facilities. So Dr. Jones was more or less interested in seeing that Dudley or the other [black] schools got their proportionate share of whatever expenditures were made by the city schools. And I know Dr. Hampton was primarily interested in the streets on the southeast side [of Greensboro], and other problems we had at that time in improving the city of Greensboro.” (Pfaff, 1979)
“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but right after the Brown decision, Mr. Ben L. Smith, who was the superintendent at that time, and a Mr. [Edward] Hudgins, who was chairman of the school board–he worked for Jefferson Standard [Life Insurance Company]–and the school board, mostly–because I knew Mrs. Brown, and a Reverend Smith–I think he worked the Methodist college [Greensboro College?] over here–they were all fine people. And so they agreed after the [Brown v. Board of Education] decision was made that they would abide by it. Greensboro would abide by it, the Supreme Court decision, and from henceforth it would be law. But they ran into some snags. And soon after that, there was an organization, and that comes in at a right nice time, now, as I think about this down in Louisiana–but they found an organization called the Patriarchs. And these Patriarchs, if you research it, were made up of the, some of the leading industrialists in Greensboro.”(Link, 1989)”
On inviting Paul Robeson to Dudley Sr. High
On one occasion, at the time that—before Paul Robeson had reached the lower ebb in the opinion of a lot of people, Paul Robeson, I invited him. I met him and I invited him to come out to speak to the Dudley student body. And being the humble person that he was, very easy to meet and talk with, he agreed and he came out and spoke to the student body, because I wanted them to see a man. Of course, Paul Robeson—as the younger generation would say—he’s my man [WC laughs], long before Martin Luther King. But Paul Robeson really was more versatile then Martin Luther King. There again, Paul fought for the same things that Martin Luther King did, but he was ahead of his time. (Chafe, 1973)
On the Greensboro Daily News coverage
“I think the Greensboro Daily News generally has been one of the best papers in the south, and they’ve made an attempt. They’ve never been racist. They didn’t do all that they could do. And–because sometimes that depends upon the people, you know, at the lower level. Sometimes it was hard to get the obituary. And I was reading the paper the other day in the “Public Pulse” [newspaper column], and something had happened, but they didn’t [it] bring out. And folks hadn’t come to me, or gone to folk who lived here and born here. And sometimes people who come here since certain things happened. But we had to fight to get the Greensboro paper to capitalize N when we call ourselves Negro.” (Link, 1989)
“But, getting back to the paper, overall the Greensboro Daily News has had, I’d say, a favorable record and has been good in regard to race relations. They’ve tried to help. But sometimes, you know, people don’t–you know, I mentioned Mr. Weaver. Now Mr. Weaver–and I could understand his behavior. As someone say, we’re the product of our environment. Now, his father was a Methodist minister. And he’d come up and come up in a world where the blacks had nothing, the whites had everything. And unknowingly, a lot of times, they probably had some prejudices and not aware of it, and think they’re doing the correct thing.” (Link, 1989)
Now in retrospect—I was talking about (Greensboro Daily News reporter) Jo Spivey. When I was on the city council, she’d call me, unlike the other reporters. They’d call and sometimes they’d want you to give an opinion right off the bat. “The Supreme Court did so-and-so today. What do you think?” Well, I spoke very honestly. I’d tell them what I think. And I still don’t regret it. But occasionally, even when they attended a meeting, you know—you’re familiar with reporters—it isn’t always correct. And secondly, sometimes when you say a thing, when you see it in print it’s different. And she’d always say, “Vance, let me read back to you what I said.” Or sometimes I’d go up there if I had a long statement to make, and we’d go over it. (Chafe, 1973)
On Chavis’ election to City Council 
I ran for the city council and I came in eighth. In July I believe it was, or June, after about two or three meetings, one of the council members died, Mr. Folk[?]. And as soon as his funeral was on a Sunday, and a lot of black people in the community, and some white people, began to write letters and send telegrams and make calls to the mayor and the city council saying that I ought to be appointed because I was next. And I think that—well, apparently they were convinced, because they did what was right. Although Jimmie Barber, the other black person, had won and we hadn’t had a black councilman in ten or twelve years, they still were willing to put this second black man because I had come in, of course, behind just behind the wire. But that’s how I got up there. And I think that was in—must have been in July, because I retired in June not knowing that I would be appointed. (Chafe, 1973)
Obituary, GNR, December 3, 1998
VANCE H. CHAVIS, TEACHER OF LESSONS IN RACIAL JUSTICE\ HIS INFLUENCE LIVES ON.
Posted: Thursday, December 3, 1998 7:00 pm
Newspapers like to attach descriptive labels to people, and Vance Chavis carried a number of them: Vance Chavis, civil rights activist; Vance Chavis, Greensboro City Council member; Vance Chavis, political organizer.
But Chavis, who passed away Monday at the age of 92, always knew in his heart precisely who he was: Vance Chavis, teacher.The obituary written by his family identifies him simply as “retired teacher’ and devoted three paragraphs to his education and public school career. No mention is made of his four crucial years on City Council. No mention is made of his help in organizing the Greensboro Citizens Association, now one of the city’s most powerful political forces. No mention is made of his being the first black man in the country to be appointed to a redevelopment commission.
His pupils have been leaders in Greensboro’s struggle for civil rights for the past 40 years. Among them: George Simkins Jr., head of the Greensboro Citizens Association and winner of the 1998 Brotherhood Award from the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice; the Rev. Otis Hairston, retired pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church and 1983 winner of the Brotherhood Award; Melvin “Skip’ Alston, county commissioner and state president of the NAACP.
The lessons Chavis espoused seem simple and obvious today: be proud of yourself; judge others by the content of their character; refuse the shackles of segregation. But they were hard lessons that took courage, intelligence and determination in the 1940s. Chavis broughtthem out of the classroom and onto the front lines by organizing voting drives and business boycotts.
Chavis once said, “The present generation … sometimes doesn’t appreciate what was done by those who came before them to make things possible.’ Not only did he teach his students about those who came before, he himself became a figure in the history books.
Sometimes a man is propelled by a powerful idea. Sometimes an idea is propelled by a powerful man. In Chavis’ case, both forces were at work. He helped teach an entire city about right and wrong, about listening and acting, about peace and justice.
Vance Chavis helped guide the city through a dark, turbulent time. His legacy – in his lessons and his pupils – lives on. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/CivilRights (Civil Rights Greensboro, UNCG)
http://crdl.usg.edu/ (Civil Rights Digital Library, University of Georgia)