Interview with: Mrs. Louisa Robinson (LR)Date of Interview: July 20, 1989
Place: Orangeburg, SC
Interviewer: Robert V. Williams (RVW)
Transcriber: Debra Nemec
Permission to Use Restrictions
RW: What I've been doing, Ms. Robinson, is taking a sort of semi-biographical approach to the interview and I, in fact, don't have your date of birth now that I look here. If you will tell me what that is so I can ....
LR: A long time ago.
RW: Tell me a little bit about your family, particularly their concern with education and what their educational background was like.
LR: I spoke earlier, before the interview, about my grandparents. My father was a brick mason, he learned his trade at Claflin College. My mother finished normal school, which at that time was a course for teachers. She also received her degree at Claflin College. And she taught music, I think in Darlington, for a while and then she taught at Claflin in the elementary school. From the time I can remember, I liked to read. At that time, a lot of cultural events came to Claflin and they would always take me as a small child to these various events.
RW: And you said your grandfather was an attorney?
LR: He read law. At that time he read law from a person that was a lawyer. This was an acceptable way to become a lawyer at that time. I think he did attend the University of South Carolina a year or so, I think. I'm not positive. But he did what they called at that time, read law. I don't know about my grandmother. I know she sewed, but her education, I don't know about.
RW: They were from Orangeburg ...
LR: They were originally from Charleston.
RW: Now, your grandfather set up a practice here in Orangeburg...
LR: Yes, and he also did several other things. He was with the Internal Revenue Service, and he organized the volunteer fire department; he was very much into things.
RW: Must have been an interesting period....
LR: I would like to show you a copy of that article my son did --
RW: Yes, I want to see that article on the house. Now, you said your son writes for the Washington Post?
RW: What's his name?
LR: Eugene Robinson. He's currently in South America. He's covering South America for the Post.
RW: Stationed in ?
LR: Buenos Aires, Argentina.
RW: World travelers from Orangeburg.
LR: He wants me to come over there but... airplanes..
RW: I'm not sure I'd want to go to Argentina right now.
LR: Well, he said it really isn't too bad in Argentina right now; but you never know what will break out. He and his family are there. They've been there a year.
RW: So you went to elementary school at Claflin?
LR: Yes and High School; my freshman year in College I went to Claflin. Then I transferred to State.
RW: That's right, I see you have your Bachelor's degree from State in 1942, with a major in English?
RW: Now, you didn't take any undergraduate Library Science courses?
LR: No, they didn't have them at that time.
RW: Not at State?
LR: Not at State, no.
RW: Claflin has the minor in Library Science at this time, don't they?
LR: I don't remember.
RW: I said because Ms. Middleton...
LR: The reason I transferred--I had a scholarship at State and Claflin, I think Claflin had no accreditation or certification at the time. They were having problems. I had an aunt who worked at State--she was a nurse at State--so I transferred there.
RW: When did your interest in libraries begin?
LR: Well, one of the librarians at State influenced me a lot, a Mrs. Sheffield. She was a family friend and a librarian over there and I would go over there and borrow books. She just took an interest and wanted me to be a librarian. I kind of liked the idea, and when I first went to State, my advisor had me majoring in Education. When Mrs. Sheffield found that out, she had a fit. She went back and got me into the English. She says, "You don't want the education." She was going on againabout Library Science. She really was a big influence on me.
RW: She took you under her wing right away then.
RW:Did you work in the library at State?
LR: Yes I did. I worked as a student assistant for one or two years when I was in college--for the big sum of $12.50 a month. And one summer I even volunteered to work in the library and I didn't get compensated. I just worked but I got good experience. Then the summer after I received my library degree, they employed me for the summer.
RW: So from State College you went to Atlanta University?
LR: Atlanta University.
RW: And received your Bachelor's degree in Library Science in '43.
RW: How did the decision to go to Atlanta University come about?
LR: Well, that was the only black library school that was accredited. There was one in North Carolina which wasn't accredited. And that was the place to go in those days. I think they gave me a scholarship of $100.00, so I went.
RW: So you were already firmly convinced by the time you graduated then...
LR: Right.. . that's what I wanted to do. Well, you didn't have the choices then that you have now. The decision wasn't quite as hard.
RW: How did you like Atlanta University when you were there and how did you feel about the quality of the education?
LR: Well, the quality was excellent. In fact, their idea was that if you were black, you've got to know twice as much. They really worked us to death. They really worked us. I had never been under such stress or strain. But I think they really gave an excellent education.
RW: Who was the director of the program at that time?
LR: Dr. Gleason, Eliza Gleason.
RW: And Dr. Jones was there...
LR: She was there. She was our cataloging teacher. In fact, I think there were about 22 of us and when we first got there with the amount of work and so forth, we seemed to be just so upset and nervous that one day she just told us to all come to her house that evening. She brought us to her house and sat us around on the floor, and talked to us and tried to settle us down because it was really a nerve-wracking experience. Several of us were just out of college and I guess we just didn't know what to expect. She really did a lot to help us while we were there.
RW: Now, you were about what...22 at the time?
LR: Let's see, I graduated from College when I was 21, ...yes.
RW: Well those were the early days of Atlanta University and it made quite an impact on the number of trained professional librarians -- black librarians--in the South. Mrs. Middleton was there about the same time your were there wasn't she?
LR: No, she taught a year.
RW: That's right. She was in Gaffney.
LR: Then she came and the year she was there I was over there working. I worked a year at Atlanta University in the catalog department.
RW: So as soon as you finished, you took the job in the University Library.
RW: As assistant ....
LR: Assistant Cataloger.
RW: Was cataloging one of your specializations?
LR: I liked it, yes. I liked the detail.
RW: So one year as assistant cataloger and then you went to Allen University.
RW: How did this happen?
LR: Well, the pay at Atlanta University was very small and the President of Allen came over and he was looking for two people: a librarian and an assistant librarian. A very dear friend of mine that was in my library class was also employed at A.U. at the time. He interviewed us and we told him if both of us could come, we'd go. So that's how that happened. I think at Atlanta University we were getting $100.00 dollars a month and he offered us $300.00 dollars a month. So we decided to go there.
RW: That's tempting. How was the library at Allen during that time. Was it in good condition and well supported?
LR: It was a fairly new building and it was well supported. Allen was in good shape at that time.
RW: Now this is the Carnegie library that was built at Allen.
LR This was the stone building on the corner. That's what they call it now?
RW: I think it was built with Carnegie funds.
RW: So it was new at the time?
LR: It was fairly new. And it was in good shape. RW: And well supported by the---
LR: Well supported.
RW: So the two of you were librarians there for ...
LR: Well she left after two years. I was always a background sort of person and we were debating who should be the head librarian and who would be the assistant. She was the head librarian and I was the assistant. She left after two years and I became the head librarian.
RW: You stayed for a number of years, until '52.
LR: I left in '50 to get my master's. I was gone from '50 to '51. I came back in '51 and I left in '52.
RW: What was it like to be the director?
LR: It was all right. I learned to like it. I have never been one to like to be before the public or this type thing--do a lot of talking--but I learned to like it. I think when I left, it was in very good shape.
RW: Do you remember what the budgets were like for buying materials?
LR: I sure don't.
RW: What about relationships with Benedict at that time?
LR: Very good. It so happens that one of my classmates at A.U. came to Benedict as the librarian. Of course the relationship was good anyway between the two schools. She and I were very good friends, so the relationship was good.
RW: Now, at that time, Benedict was a much poorer school than Allen, wasn't it?
LR: As far as I could tell they were about the same.
RW: But were they in terms of budget?
LR: I really don't know but they appeared to be in about thesame condition.
RW: When you were at Allen, did you ever have the chance to visit the University of South Carolina's main library?
RW: Or visit with any of the librarians? They never made any efforts to cooperate with you?
RW: Did you have the distinctive feeling, that they would not welcome such a ...
LR: At that time you just assumed that they wouldn't, I guess, because it just never entered my mind.
RW: So when you didn't have some materials, you didn't think about calling USC?
RW: What did you do about borrowing materials that you didn't have at that time?
LR: We didn't loan at that time; the students just used what we had.
RW: Well certainly interlibrary loan did not advance in your case...
RW: -- I guess South Carolina State and Payne College and those kind of places would have been open to you.
LR: They would have been open I'm sure but... there just wasn'ta demand for materials we did not have.
RW: But no dealings at all with the librarians at USC?
RW: So in '50 you went to the University of Michigan.
RW: Now this is a long ways from home. How did you choose Michigan and how was that?
LR: Well, I don't know; at that time I had met a friend who eventually became my husband in Atlanta and he was in Michigan at that time. Now, I can't say whether that was an influence as to why I really went there. But anyway I was in correspondence with him and he knew I could find a place to stay and that type of thing. At that time at Michigan, the blacks were not staying in the dormitories; you stayed in a house in the city. It was justeasier because you had to go out of state for the degree and find a place to stay and that kind of thing. I guess part of that was the influence-- and the curriculum. They offered what they called an advanced Master's degree. They took into consideration that I already had a Bachelor's. The bachelor's, you know, had been phased out. They took this into consideration and they offered anadvanced Master's degree. That played a big part in it too.
RW: So, had you decided at this point that you needed the Master's degree?
RW: Because the Bachelor's was becoming obsolete?
RW: Phasing out.
RW: Well, what about it in terms of quality compared with A. U.?
LR: Well, I took advanced courses and I didn't have quite as much stress. But I had to work very hard. The classes met less often. I was the only black in many of my classes. I always felt, for instance in reference, I think that until some members of the class found that I knew how to find material as well as they, I was always left alone to do my work, --you know how they do in reference -- sometimes you get together. I enjoyed the atmosphere. That was my first time being in an integrated situation.
RW: How was it? Did you feel discriminated against? You talked about some reluctance on their part to share with you.
LR: Not really. Sometimes I feel that I'm prejudiced also. So it didn't bother me really. When they found that I could carry my weight, all of that changed.
RW: What about the faculty?
LR: I didn't think that they discriminated, as far as I could tell. In fact, I often laughed because the head of the program, Mr. Gjelsness... I was the only black in his class. My name was Smith and there was also this little red-headed girl whose name was Smalls. On one occasion, Mr. Gjelsness called on one of us and confused, he said, "Oh, I have such a time keeping the two of you separated."
RW: Your husband was a student at the University of Michigan?
LR: At that time he was going to Wayne State Law School in Detroit. But his home was in Ann Arbor.
RW: Oh he is; so he's really a yankee?
RW: So you finished in '51 and came back then to Allen University...
RW: ... you probably were filled with all sorts of grand ideas about the Master's program as to how much money in the library I'm going to have and that kind of thing? Again, was Allen University supporting you?
LR: They were supporting as well as they could. Now, there are difference between a church school and a state school, but they did support. The bishop at that time was very supportive of the program.
RW: Having worked in an integrated situation for the first time, or at least having been a student in one and observed it-- particularly at the University library-- you still knew that in Columbia there was no way to be any sharing or exchanging ideas between you and folks at USC? It's interesting in talking with folks about that wall that was there between librarians located only a few blocks away. The different kinds of resources as to just how...
LR: Well, the public library was here in Orangeburg and we couldn't go.
RW: Did you ever use the black branch in Columbia?
LR: No, I knew the librarian there but I never used it.
RW: What libraries did you use growing up?
LR: I used Claflin and State.
RW: Because, again, there was no branch open to blacks for the public library?
LR: You're right. There was no branch open to blacks in Orangeburg. It's hard to believe that such existed. RW: I know, it is. It really is, when you think that. I mean, my kids look at me and say, "What?" It was difficult too. Now, I have that you were the librarian for George Washington Carver School ..
LR: That was in Michigan, in Oak Park, Michigan, right outside of Detroit. I got married in '52 and we went to Detroit to live and I worked there a year. I was glad to survive the ordeal of that work experience.
RW: So you resigned then at Allen and got married and went to work in Michigan?
RW: When you say an ordeal, what does that mean?
LR: The kids. It was an elementary school and I just wasn't used to school children that didn't behave. In fact, I had never worked in a school before. And now I had to go in the public school. This was an all black situation. And that shocked me because, you know, living in the South I thought everything was integrated up there and this was an all black situation and the children were very unruly. And I just couldn't deal with that.
RW: And you had been working for a number of years in a college situation.
LR: Yes, it makes a difference.
RW: Now in your program at Michigan, did you specialize in any particular area?
RW: So it was a general advanced program? So one year as a school librarian was enough for you?
LR: That was enough.
RW: And one year at Michigan was enough too?
LR: The weather!
RW: How did you talk your husband into coming south?
LR: Well, I don't know. At one time he had decided he was going to stay up there and practice law. Then things changed and Gene came along and I came home and in the meantime, my father died and my mother was left alone. I had an aunt who lived here too. They offered me a job at Claflin. They also said they could give my husband a job if he was interested. So he decided to come down and give it a try. He came down and he likes it. I think I can stand more cold than he can now.
RW: How did he react to a much more rigidly segregated society having grown up in the north?
LR: It didn't seem to bother him. I think he was afraid at first. He was afraid...you know they paint different stories in the north. And then he adjusted and got along all right. He taught at Claflin for a while. Then he decided to take a government exam and ended up working for Social Security. When the movement took place he was...well, I'm timid too. We weren't out there going to jail. We were with the group, of course, because several nights the students that were throwing rocks overhead, the patrol men were lined up all around this house....It was a frightful time--but he adjusted well.
RW: And he was working for the federal government with...
LR: Social Security.
RW: Was he under the supervision of whites or was he --
LR: Yes. RW: --in charge of the office?
LR: No, he wasn't in charge of he office; he was under whites. But he got along well with them. Well, he had been dealing with whites a lot longer than I had. He also went into the Army with them, so... that didn't bother him.
RW: Now, Claflin offered you the job as librarian...
[Ms. Robinson's daughter walks into room.]
LR: This is my daughter, Ellen.
RW: Hi. nice to meet you. We're hearing the family history.
LR: She works at State.
RW: We'll get to your [the daughter's] birth shortly and.....[back to interview] So you began as librarian at Claflin then in '55, I have here.
LR: '55 that's it.
RW: What was the condition of the library when you became the director?
LR: It was small and it was in a small building. They had just moved from the Lee library to this renovated building. I guess for that time it was in good condition I think.
RW: Good collection, good support?
LR: Yes, pretty nice collection but they didn't have much money for books. The students at that time were really there to learn and they used the library.
RW: How did it compare with State's library?
LR: It was much smaller in volumes and size.
RW: So they had moved from the Lee library.
LR: From the Lee Library to the Bowen Library.
RW: And you were the only professional librarian?
LR: Yes. At the time. There was another full time member of the library staff and a part time person. But I was the only professional librarian. Then they brought in a person to take care of periodicals. She had an undergraduate degree in Library Science.
RW: So you were the first person with a Master's?
LR: They had had one before I came but she left and I got the job.
RW: Do you recall what kind of budget you had for books and periodicals?
LR: No I sure don't. It was very small.
RW: Did you report to the president at that time?
RW: So you had the periodical indexes ...
LR: Yes, we had the basic reference books.
RW: [side two] ---back within an academic environment?
LR: Yes, I enjoyed my work. The student body was very small. I don't remember what it was but it really was like a family. Everybody was concerned about everybody else. If someone bought a new car, everybody knew it. And if somebody had a new coat, everybody knew it. I really enjoyed the work. The students used the library a lot. We held several book reviews and plays and the attendance was always very good. During that period we did what we called a Book-O-Rama every year. We would take subjects and put all of our new books on tables pertaining to those various subjects. We'd give them a name; for instance, one time we used TV shows and the Today Show was the theme of it. And then we had different themes to carry out different subjects. We always had a big attendance at these events. That was on a Sunday and Monday. I don't know, it was just an enjoyable experience.
RW: Did you have library use instruction programs going on at that time?
LR: Some, yes.
RW: And you received another assistant librarian, what, a couple of years later I believe you said. You got a person with a bachelor's degree?
LR: Yes. She came that spring after I started. And then later on they added a reference librarian. And then they added one for circulation.
RW: Now, when you retired, there were three professional librarians on the staff?
LR:When I retired from Claflin?
LR: Let's see.... There were three of us
RW: That's pretty good at that period of time; because you retired in what year?
RW: Now during the time you were at Allen and at Claflin, were you involved in the library association meetings, the Palmettos Teacher Association or any of those groups?
LR: I was a member of the Palmetto State Teacher's Association some times but there really wasn't anything much for college librarians; they had meetings mostly for school librarians. And the South Carolina Library Association didn't accept blacks until the `60's--the early '60's I think. I went to [ the first meeting], Ms. Caldwell, Dr. Jenkins, Mrs. Middleton, and myself.
RW: This was the Greenville Meeting? Do you remember what year that was? Was that '63?
LR: I think that was about '62 or '63. I just remember one other black person. We couldn't stay at the hotel. We had to go to a black hotel.
RW: This is when they canceled the dinner meeting?
RW: Because you all were there and they didn't want any..... What about meetings after that. Did you go to meetings following that?
LR: I went to the meetings. I went to most of them.
RW: I think there was a meeting in Charleston the following year in which you all stayed in the Jack Tarr Hotel down there.
LR: The one downtown?
LR: I remember that might have been the next year. Yes, I went to that.
RW: How did it happen, in your view, that blacks were allowed to come to the Library Association meetings? Do you remember how it happened?
LR: I really don't. I don't know what brought it on--I really don't.
RW: How did you hear about it?
LR: I don't remember that. But I just know that we decided to go. I don't know who got together or who said we should go or what; I just don't remember.
RW: But you and Barbara Jenkins and Bernice Middleton...Rossie Caldwell.
LR: Four of us went.
RW: Ms. Middleton said something about Ms. Nancy Jean Daybeing veryencouraging and supportive of you all coming to the meetings of SCLA, butshe wasn't precise as to whether it was that meeting or some other meeting.
LR: I didn't have too much dealings with Ms. Day because she wasconcerned mostly with the school librarians.
RW: As a black college librarian, there were really not that many support groups for you?
LR: No, there weren't.
RW: Did you go to ALA meetings during this time?
LR: I went to several ALA meetings. I went to aboutfour or five.
RW: And you were able to meet with other college librarians?
RW: What were you doing about borrowing materials for interlibrary loan during the period that you were at Claflin?
LR: We had a strong relationship with State College. In fact, there's a written agreement where we said that their students could use our library and ours could use their library.
RW: What were your major problems during your years at Claflin?
LR: I guess money.
RW: Always needing more...?
LR: Needing more than you have.
RW: And in a church school probably more serious than a state school. Now, Claflin is United Methodist, right?
LR: It is.
RW: Did you go to Southeastern Library Association meetings during that time?
LR: No. I went to one in Atlanta but I don't remember that one very well.
RW: I have here that you were a member of SCLA--but I don't have the dates. Did you do much committee work for the association?LR: No, I didn't, but I was a member for most of the years I worked at Claflin after membership became available. I am currently an Honorary Life Member.
RW: Now, you have..., what, three kids by the '50's?
LR: I just have two.
RW: Okay. A daughter and a son.
LR: A son and a daughter; my son is older.
RW: Isee[from a picture in the library room] he must be a Democrat since he is shaking hands with Mr. Mondale.
LR: At that time he was a reporter (Washington Post) assigned to cover Mondale's presidential campaign.
RW: When you retired from Claflin, what were your feelings atthat time in terms of satisfaction with your career?
LR: Well, I was pleased because we had come through numerous visits fromthe Southern Association and NASDTEC and this type of thing. It's alwayshard for small schools to get ready and pass the exams and I thought we had done well. The library had received very little criticism through any of it. So I was pleased.
RW: Had Claflin lost accreditation during any of the time you were librarian?
LR: No. I think they were accredited just before I got there. Trying to keep it at that time was very difficult. I'll neverforget the time the Southern Association paid us a visit and theChairman of the team made us count the books while they were there. He said the problem was the number of books. But we had strong backing from Presidentof the college in trying tomeetour needs. Ithink the Chairman praised me to the president, which made me feel good.
RW: Well, you must have been able to make arguments continually to the president about the accreditation thing.
LR: Yes. He realized what we needed was the money. And he was trying hard to get it. We really had a large staff at one time. The staff is smaller now. We had a professional librarian [in] acquisitions, one in cataloging, one in reference. So we have lost some.
RW: There's only two professionals over there now?
LR: Three over there now.
RW: Three over there now. So you had four at the time?
LR: Yes. Four with myself and there are three now.
RW: So the library was never the cause of losing accreditation?
LR: No. We had been able to maintain it up to this point.
RW: Well, I know a private school really has a difficult time.
LR: Now the library, the one they have now, was built in '67.When we were planning the new library, I had my first major contactwith a white librarian. And that was Mr. Rheams, at USC.
RW: How did this happen?
LR: Well, he had just built the library, the [undergraduate] library at USC. We went up to Columbia to talk with him about it. I did not have contact with him again until he was later transferred to Francis Marion College and then we became very close friends.
RW: He was the director of the library at USC?
LR: At that time, yes. And then they sent him to Florence. I had no contact with him for a while and then he became a trustee of Claflin and we became very good friends.
RW: So initially it was '66 when you were planning the building?
RW: So he was helpful to you then?
RW: But you had had no meetings with any of...
LR: He visited several black college libraries. It was just that one visit to USC. I don't remember when Mr. Rheams became a trustee; but anyway, he became a trustee.
RW: You had still been going occasionally to SCLA meetings during that time?
LR: Yes and I would see him.
RW: But didn't have any friendships with other white librarians...?
RW: How about Mr. Toombs when he came to USC? Was he friendly with you?
LR: He was friendly, but I never had any ...
RW: Close dealings with him? Any relationships with the State Library at that time?
RW: So most of your dealings with white librarians in the state continued to be very slim, except at the SCLA meetings. And forinterlibrary loans...?
LR: Well, we had that, yes. We were doing quite a bit of it at the time--all over. We dealt with the Cooperative College Library Center in Atlanta. We didn't have Solinet. But anyway, CCLC had a copy of our shelf list and we would get requests from all over.
RW: So South Carolina dealings were very limited...?
RW: In terms of SCLA itself, did you find it at all helpful to you?
LR: I enjoyed going to the meetings and the outings.
RW: You didn't find it to be a public library group of folks?
LR: I felt that some of the speakers didn't really give us what we needed as a small black college library. But as I said, I enjoyed going to the meetings. As I understand it now,black people aren't going like I think they should.RW: It's not great. But I would say the main thing is the school librarians, and, therefore, black school librarians. The school librarians more than any other group are becoming more and more separate and I think that the South Carolina Association of School Librarians is very well integrated. Well, in fact, Mrs. Middleton was president in the '70's. Fewer and fewer school librarians are members of SCLA. Barbara Jenkins would know better than I do how many black librarians are coming. That might be the case. I'm just not sure.
LR: I don't think anybody from Claflin went last year or the year before.
RW: Do you know why or...
LR: I don't know. I don't know why. I wanted to go with them the year Barbara was president of SCLA.
RW: Barbara and I talked about the sweet revenge because when she was president we met in Greenville. And it must have been sweet revenge afterhaving been kicked out...
LR: That's one reason I really wanted to go. I wanted to see her in action as President.
RW: She did a good job as president.
LR: She's a very accomplished person. She works hard.
RW: Well, I hope the folks at Claflin will come back and attend. SCLA has been accused of being an organization more for public libraries than anything else. I think that's changed. Well, when you retired, you felt good about what you had done there?
LR: Yes I did.
RW: What have you been doing in retirement now?
LR: Well, one year, I worked two days a week at Claflin. I helped the library order books. Since then I haven't done anything. I don't know. Just piddling. The day just goes.
RW: Sitting in your easy chair.
LR: It feels good.
RW: Most retired folks I find nowadays, work harder while they're retired than they did while they were working.
LR: Yes. There's always so much to do at home.
RW: Often times, a church finds out that a person retires and will grab them.
LR: Yes. I've been doing some church work working on the news bulletin we put out. It's only twice a year but it takes a lot of time.
RW: And you're Methodist?
LR: Yes, United Methodist, I belong to the church right down the street.
RW: Is it a black church?
LR: Yes. The Methodist Church is integrated -- we have a blackbishop now. I don't think they've had any cross appointments except one that I know of. A black person is now an associate minister of a white church in Greenville.
RW: I think it's like the Presbyterian--I'm a Presbyterian--it's fully integrated yet still separate.
RW: That's pretty much the way it is in Columbia. Well, I think those are all my questions, any comments, any other kinds of comments you want to make about things?
LR: I can't think of anything. I really enjoyed what I was doing. I knew it was time to stop.
RW: To enjoy a well-earned rest.
LR: Yes. Things seem to get a little more complex each year, with everything going on.
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