Lovecraft Country fact vs. fiction: Segregated public libraries

Lovecraft Country‘s “A History of Violence” gave a nod to the history of segregated public libraries in America without saying a word.

For the characters of Lovecraft Country, literature, be it fiction, nonfiction, or spiritual is not only incredibly important to them as people, but it’s also the means with which they understand the unnatural happenings the Braithwhites have introduced into their lives. So, it makes sense that the series incorporated a public library as a set in “A History of Violence,” but it wouldn’t be Lovecraft Country without a nod to the historical period our characters live in. The Southside Colored Library — though fictional as far as our research can tell — is a product of segregated Chicago and a reality for many Black Americans living and reading in the 1950s.

Lovecraft Country has unrelentingly made the point that Jim Crow’s reach went further than the South and actually encompassed the Midwest and the Northeast as well. As its story progresses so does its erasure of the tolerant North, an ahistorical imagining of the so-called enlightened northerners who were not racist and did not enact policies that restricted Black people, and other citizens of color, from integrating into and participating in society.

The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest as seen in “Sundown.” Here, Black library patrons can access information or read at the leisure. While the building is not spacious and the collection isn’t vast — Leti makes a quick circuit of the library in mere seconds before finding Tic — the Black citizens of Chicago’s Southside are fortunate in that it they at least have a library.

In “On the Battle to Desegregate the Nation’s Libraries” — an article on Lithub— there is an account of a library in Locust, New Jersey where Black patrons entered a backdoor in the Navesink township library in order to be led to a small room segregated from the reading room provided to white patrons. The year was 1945, 10 years before the time frame of Lovecraft Country, but it would take nearly 20 years before a law was enacted by the federal government to ensure discriminatory acts such as this and segregated libraries were abolished. This law was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The history of libraries is one rife with a continuous reckoning and evolution stipulated on who has access to information, who is allowed in the room, who is allowed on the stacks, and whose work is displayed, recommended, and purchased for distribution. It’s a history that moves toward increased equity even if progress is slow or hampered by old schools of thought. But, like American history overall, racism and racist practices under the guise of betterment still permeated library institutions.

In 2018, The American Library Association (ALA) officially apologized for their silence on segregated libraries via a resolution that honored Black people who fought against library segregation. Their apology consists of the role they played both actively and passively in keeping library doors shut to Black citizens in terms of access and professional association.

The resolution accounts for the allowance of ALA accredited libraries to enact bookmobile-only policies for Black library patrons instead of in-branch service, restrict hours for Black library patrons instead of full access to in-branch service, provide a minimized collection in comparison to white patrons of the same towns and cities, to deny service to prospective Black library patrons on the basis of race, and discriminate in their hiring practices.

Again, as Lovecraft Country has made an effort to show episode after episode, racism has had its hand in every institution in America even ones that purport themselves to be of public service.

For more of our Lovecraft Country coverage, follow our Lovecraft Country category and check out our podcast, Lovecraft Country Chronicles for recaps and reactions!