St. Petersburg in 1915 was as segregated as the rest of the country. The only library in the city was the Carnegie Library (later renamed Mirror Lake Branch), located in the downtown area, and certainly was not open to the city’s black residents. As a child, Helen Allen Edwards never dared enter St. Petersburg’s public library. That was because she is black and while no signs prevented her from using the library, unwritten rules kept her out.
As Helen Edwards reached adulthood and became a teacher, barriers began to fall. Not only did she enter the library, she became the first librarian of the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library, beginning a 34-year career.
To blacks who loved reading and learning, the doors of the library were closed Unfortunately, the city’s only black school at the time, Davis Elementary, did not have a library, and even though blacks were allowed to use a reading room with few books at the Campbell Park Center, that facility soon closed, and they were left with no library.
1944, the need for a library to service the black community of St. Petersburg was addressed.
A group of interested and concerned white and black citizens joined together to form a committee to reopen the Campbell Park Center library for the black community.
March 1945, City Manager Carleton Sharpe was interviewed and over the next two years, meetings were held, letter drafted to City officials and other community members who could be of help, outlining the need for a library.
On April 1, 1947, the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library was dedicated with an appropriation of $3,500. Located at 1035 3rd Avenue South, the library was named after James Weldon Johnson, the African-American poet, author, and writer of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice”.
The library was in a 1,025 square foot room, leased to the city by a black masonic organization for $50 per month.
The opening of the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library was indeed a welcome relief for blacks who previously had no access to a library’.
The library was headed by Lessie Burke, and started with 1066 volumes. “It served as much as a study hall and a library”, said Helen Edwards.
Helen Edwards became head librarian in 1950, and ran the library almost singlehandedly until 1979.
The library attempted in every possible way during those years to meet the needs of the black community.
Prior to the opening of the G. W. Perkins Library at Gibbs High School (the only black high school in the city), the branch served the students who attended that school, covering their reading and reference needs.
Public book reviews were held, as were story times for nursery and kindergarten children, films for the local black Boy Scouts troops, and even a summer reading program in connection with the city’s recreation department.
The collection grew to 2,789 volumes, with a recorded circulation of 49,288 and 1,821 registered borrowers.
The hours of operation: The library was opened from lpm-5:30pm and 6pm-8pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the hours were from 9am-12pm and lpm-5:30pm. The building was closed on Fridays and Sundays, but on the evenings it was open, there was standing room only with 65-70people.
The library continued to flourish at the 3rd Avenue location until 1979, when city officials decided that it had outgrown the facility. Another reason was the city’s urban redevelopment project which had relocated hundreds of the black residents from the well- known Gas Plant area to areas farther south. (The city had purchased this property This meant that the library was no longer easily accessible to the black community.
Many residents were afraid that the closing of the Johnson Branch would also mean the death of the library, but Helen Edwards was sure that “they would again provide library services for the inner city south side ”, because the city was eagerly looking for a new site.
On October 6, 1981, the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library reopened in the newly built Enoch D. Davis Multi-Purpose Center at 1111 18* Avenue South. Mrs. Edwards resumed her position as head librarian, and immediately started films, tours, story times, and other projects that would bring in the community. Mrs. Edwards also started one of the most extensive African-American collections in the state, and surely the only one of its kind in the city. Researchers would come in for information on black history, and Mrs. Edwards herself was a source of information on the subject.
Mrs. Edwards retired as librarian in 1984, after a 34 year career. She left behind a legacy that endures to this day, and inspired many children who used the library, instilling in them a love of the library, and making sure that they developed the skills to use it.
Watson Haynes commented that, he grew up in the Library and that one of the most influential persons in my life was Mrs. Edwards.
The library is presently staffed by several full-time employees.
It is open to the public Mondays-Thursdays from 9am-9pm, Fridays from 9am-5:30pm, and Saturdays from 9am-5:00pm.