In celebration of Black History Month, this article explores the rich history of Black alumni at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS). By delving into the past experiences and achievements of Black graduates, we honor their contributions while shedding light on the evolution of diversity within the institution.
A Segregated Start
The origins of SILS in 1931 were marred by the prevailing "separate but equal" policies, which discouraged African American students from seeking training at UNC.
In 1939, the N.C. General Assembly authorized the establishment of a professional school in library science at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (now North Carolina Central University). SILS Director Dr. Susan Grey Akers agreed to help the program get started and served as part-time dean of the NCCU program while serving as director/dean of SILS until Oct. 1946.
The early 1950s were a significant time for SILS and UNC. In 1950, the new Master of School Librarianship program began. In 1951, a new program leading to an M.S. in Library Science was approved. In 1955, the school’s bachelor’s program in librarianship ended.
The 1950s also saw the first black men enter UNC, following legal battles. The Law School was the first to be forced to allow Black students after courts ruled that NC offered no equal school for African American students. Other graduate and professional schools began enrolling Black students. The first Black undergraduates entered UNC in 1954. The first female undergraduate Black student enrolled in 1963.
In 1960, Arline P. Neal became the first African American graduate of the library school, earning her M.S. in Library Science. No biography or details of her time at UNC have been located yet.
Demetria Tucker: 1970s
The child of a military father, Demetria Tucker experienced both segregated and integrated schools throughout her childhood. She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology from NC A&T, and then began working at a library in Roanoke, Virginia. Tucker found a passion for the work and decided to pursue her M.S. in Library Science. She arrived at UNC in 1976.
At that time, she was the only African American student in the school. Within a year, another Black woman enrolled. Tucker became a mentor, and the two women helped support each other through their studies. She remembers attending a library conference at NC Central and cited the importance of the historic relationship between the library schools at UNC and NC Central.
“It was interesting. Challenging. I was really impressed with professors like Mary Kingsbury, Susan Steinfirst, and Lester Asheim. They were very encouraging. I felt like they were behind me, pushing me, motivating me. If I needed to talk to someone, I could talk to them,” said Tucker.
As the only African American student in her classes, Tucker had the burden of being the voice of her community. She had to be outspoken in combating negative stereotypes.
After earning her master’s degree, Tucker returned to Virginia to lead a distinguished and impactful career as a public librarian. Her recognitions include the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the ALA 2013 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the SILS 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award.
Gerald Holmes: 1980s
That’s what led Holmes to UNC. The library program had just increased the degree requirements from 36 to 48 credit hours to include courses on computers.
“I really wanted to be marketable, so I wanted to get the three-year experience,” said Holmes.
Like Demetria Tucker, Holmes doesn’t recall hearing of any Black students before him, and he was the only Black student in his year in the library program. He joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and said that if it wasn’t for that brotherhood, he would have felt very isolated.
Holmes has led a distinguished career as an academic librarian at UNC Greensboro. He was the first chair of the SILS Alumni Inclusion and Diversity (SAID) committee. He has participated in or led extensive efforts to increase diversity in the field, recruit underrepresented students, and increase understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. His many recognitions include: the 2019 SILS Distinguished Alumni Award, the 2015 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award from the UNC General Alumni Association, the 2015 North Carolina Library Association Distinguished Library Service Award, the 2015 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Distinguished Service to the Library Profession Award, and the 2005 NCLA REMCo Roadbuilders Award in Academic Librarianship.
Mae Lipscomb Rodney was the first Black doctoral graduate at SILS, earning her PhD in LIS in 1986.
Read more about Mae.
Irene Owens: 1990s
Irene Owens is the current Chair of the SAID committee. The group works to increase the involvement and engagement of SILS minority alumni.
Owens, who was dean of the library program at NCCU from 2005–2016, looks back fondly at the close relationships she formed with three other African American women in SILS during her time as a doctoral student in the early 1990s. The group supported each other and traveled together to the first National Conference of African American Librarians, held in Ohio in 1992.
“The conference was culturally rich, informative, and almost like a big family reunion in some respects. It was a marvelous gathering,” said Owens.
One professor who left an impression on Owens was Elfreda Chatman. This African American woman “stands as a pioneering library and information science scholar.” (Fulton) “She was a powerhouse,” said Owens. “I think the word brilliant is overused, but for me, it applied to her. There is no one in the field that knew theory the way that she did.”
Owens' many recognitions include: the Howard University Outstanding Service Award, the University of Texas Excellence in Teaching Award, the UNC Distinguished Alumni Award, the NCLA Library Education Award, the Demco/BCALA Award for Excellence in Librarianship, and the National Council of Negro Women Award for Distinguished Professional Achievements.
Black students at SILS still work to build community and support. In 2022, graduate students Mya McCoy and Lyric Grimes started the Student Association of Black Librarians to build connections between students and to help increase the number of Black students at SILS.
Saija Wilson is the current president of the group, which has grown to offer study sessions, social events, and more. Members share resources and career goals and speak openly to each other about challenges such as lagging wages, the difficulties of creating networks, and the expense of joining professional associations.
“There’s a lot of pressure to try to speak for a lot of people—a pressure a lot of marginalized people face when entering fields that are trying to diversity,” said Wilson, echoing a challenge Demetria Tucker faced almost 50 years ago.
As we celebrate the achievements of Black alumni, it’s essential to acknowledge both historical struggles and ongoing efforts to create an inclusive environment. We strive to create a future where everyone feels welcome in the world of information and library science.
Fulton, Crystal: An ordinary life in the round: Elfreda Annmary Chatman