By Ben Joravsky

If they were the gloating kind, the members of the Vivian G. Harsh Society would be popping champagne, having accomplished the seemingly impossible task of forcing library commissioner Mary Dempsey to change her plans and set aside more space for the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American Culture. “I never imagined what this would take,” says Aldon Morris, the Northwestern University sociology professor who cochairs the society. “Basically, it took four years to build a room.”

That room now houses one of the city’s most valuable collections. Harsh was the first black librarian hired by the city, and from 1932 to 1958 she ran the George Cleveland Hall branch at 48th and Michigan. It was there that she started her collection, which features first-edition books, original manuscripts, letters, and other rare documents written to or by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Horace Cayton, St. Clair Drake, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Durham, and others. Many of these great writers either used the Hall Library or were Harsh’s friends. Harsh died in 1960, but over the years her collection of documents has continued to grow; it now has more than 70,000 items and draws scholars from around the world.

In 1975 the collection was moved from Hall to the new Woodson Regional Library at 95th and Halsted. But by the mid-1980s it was obvious that it needed to be housed in a larger, more secure, climatically controlled facility if precious documents weren’t to be lost, stolen, or destroyed by humidity.

In 1989 the state allocated about $435,000 to build a new wing at Woodson for the collection, but years passed and it was never started. Finally in 1994 a society of scholars and activists, most of whom live on the south side, was formed to press the city to push ahead with the project. “We felt it was a disgrace the way the collection was stored,” says Morris. “We had to act because we couldn’t afford to lose a national treasure.”

In addition to Morris, the society includes cochair B.J. Bolden, an English professor at Chicago State; Cheryl Johnson-Odim, chair of the history department at Loyola University; Donald Brown, a lawyer; and Evalyn Hamilton-Russell, a south-side activist. Yet despite their credentials, the society members faced huge obstacles. For starters, few if any officials in the Daley administration had ever heard of Vivian Harsh, much less her collection. And though the society members had a political ally or two in the black community, most notably state representative Monique Davis, none of their allies had enough clout to get the project done.

It took the society almost three years of lobbying at budget hearings and library meetings to persuade city officials to build the wing. The city finally allocated about $3 million for the project (in addition to the state money). But then there were delays. The original developer went belly-up, and a new contractor had to be selected. The city tried to award the design contract to a white architect, but after months of research and several meetings with city officials, the society got them to award the contract to a black architect. “It’s important that a project of this symbolic importance have a black architect–it’s important that we can show children in this community the name of a black architect on the building,” says Morris. “But that whole issue took time. We had to watch almost every detail.”

After a year of planning, the society and the city agreed on a basic design. A wing would be added to Woodson to house much of the collection, and the north wing of the library would be renovated to create reading rooms and office space exclusively for people working with the collection. Or so the society members thought. But earlier this summer they learned that the library was proposing to use at least a quarter of the renovated space for its periodicals section.

The society members immediately objected. They said they felt duped, as though the city was trying to sneak something by them. They didn’t think the Harsh collection could afford to lose any space, particularly since they expected it to expand. And they thought that including a periodicals section would be disruptive. “Obviously we have nothing against a newspaper section–every library needs one,” says Morris. “But they generate a lot of foot traffic and additional security risks. The Harsh collection is far too important for such intrusions. It needs its own identity. It’s absolutely necessary for scholars to know that when they walk through those doors they are there for serious study. We aren’t making an unusual request. We want standards that befit respect for the collection–the same standards as at the Newberry or any major research facility.”

On June 26 they sent Dempsey a carefully crafted letter. “[We recently learned] that another department is to be housed jointly with the Harsh collection,” the letter reads. “We believe that information about these plans must be in error…for a couple of reasons. First, you as Commissioner… promised from the outset that the Society would be informed about all important decisions pertaining to this project….Secondly, we do not believe that any decisions that would compromise the Collection would be tolerated by your office.”

Dempsey wrote back to say that the proposed change had indeed met with her approval. She explained that there were other needs to meet at Woodson. The periodicals section was cramped, and its users needed more space. Moreover, the Harsh collection wouldn’t need so much reading space since most of it would be available on-line and users could access it without even walking through Woodson’s doors. “Our experience with the placement of serials [the libraries’ word for periodicals] collections at the Harold Washington Library Center, which handles a monthly circulation 4 times higher than Woodson…does not bear out your theory about disruption, traffic and noise from the presence of a serials collection,” Dempsey wrote in a follow-up letter to Bolden and Morris. “The layouts at those other libraries facilitate access, research and quiet study.”

Meetings between the two sides grew tense. The society thought Dempsey didn’t appreciate the collection’s importance, and Dempsey thought the society was being inflammatory. The society enlisted the support of 21st Ward alderman Leonard DeVille, a Daley appointee. In mid-August Dempsey issued another proposal moving the periodicals out of the newly renovated wing and dedicating about 4,300 square feet in the wing for offices.

“When we studied their new proposal it dawned on us that there wasn’t an enclosed office for the curator,” says Morris.”This is not simply a matter of prestige–although the dignity of the curator’s position requires an office–it’s also a matter of practicality. You have people coming in to donate papers. They need a private place to talk with the curator where they won’t disturb others.”

To many in the society, it seemed as though the city was being provocative. “Why did they have to make each step a fight?” says Morris. “We had to fight for the funding, and then there was the issue of the white architect, then serials, then they stuck those other offices in Harsh–now this. We have been portrayed as a militant bunch full of hot, fiery rhetoric–and we feel we have been just the opposite. We have been willing to compromise. It’s been so long and difficult. We’re volunteers. We have family and jobs. Just imagine the amount of time and energy we put into this. Once you start, you can’t stop.”

The society members requested an office for the curator. Dempsey responded with a plan that wedged that office almost against a sculpture in the lobby. The society objected, saying that wasn’t enough space.

During the first week of August the society had begun a letter-writing campaign to show the mayor that the Harsh collection wasn’t just some ordinary collection of artifacts and that the issue was particularly significant to older black residents, many of whom had known Harsh. More than 3,000 letters poured in, some of them accusing the administration of being insensitive and ignorant about black history. Everyone knew that if Daley didn’t act, the matter could become a rallying cry for Congressman Bobby Rush in the 1999 mayoral campaign.

On September 4 the library announced that the curator would get an office just where the society wanted it. The society signed on to the proposal.

Library officials now downplay the controversy. “I would say that we and the society had agreed to 95 percent of the space,” says Karen Danczak Lyons, the library’s first deputy commissioner. (Dempsey was on vacation when I called.) “We appreciate their efforts. We appreciate the efforts of all our Friends groups. We welcome input. I should add that Alderman DeVille has been very involved in this process.” The library still hasn’t decided where the periodicals section will go, but the newly renovated Harsh reading room should open in October.

“I guess you can look at this two ways,” says Morris. “We won a great victory that demonstrates the community can make this city work if we get involved. Generally, City Hall wins when you cannot maintain a collective effort. We maintained that effort. We were a great team. We had a great blend of talent, including a lawyer and an architect. On the other hand, it’s a shame we had to fight so hard and long to get it done. We all learned some valuable lessons about how the city works.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Aldon Morris, Alicia Smith, Donald Brown, B.J. Bolden, Evalyn Hamilton-Russell photo by Dan Machnik.