Saturday, August 1, 2015

Alice at the Library...of Congress!

Alice Lee (1906-97) was the second oldest of the Renfrow children, and the first to be born in Minnesota. Like the rest of her siblings, she grew up and went to school in Grinnell.  But, once she finished high school, she left Grinnell to make her mark elsewhere in the world.  If her older sister, Helen, settled in Iowa City, and her younger sister, Evanel, ultimately located in Savannah, Georgia, Alice made her home in Washington, D. C., where for more than forty years she worked for one of the world's great libraries. Unlike Helen and Evanel, however, Alice never married, and therefore after her 1997 death her body was returned to Grinnell, and buried next to her parents and brothers in Hazelwood Cemetery. So her story circles back to conclude in Grinnell, even if the most successful pages of the tale were written far away from the family homestead.
South School Students, ca. 1912: Alice Renfrow, 2nd row, far left
(photo courtesy of Digital Grinnell; thanks to Gail Bonath who brought this photo to my attention)
When the Renfrow family returned to Grinnell in 1909 or 1910, Alice was only three or four years old, and therefore she probably didn't begin grade school before 1911. A surviving photograph of unidentified students in front of South School includes one young African American girl, probably Alice Lee Renfrow. Like her sisters and brothers, Alice had to get used to being the only African American in her class.

Little else is known about Alice's school days. She probably attended South School for all her elementary education before moving on to Center and the adjacent High School.  Like sisters Helen and Evanel, Alice identified YWCA in the 1924 high school yearbook as an extra-curricular activity, but nothing else. Whereas Helen and Evanel had taken the so-called normal curriculum, directed toward future teachers, Alice pursued the commercial course, a curriculum intended to prepare students for secretarial and office work. However, as Alice reported in a 1982 interview with Stuart Yeager, a Grinnell College student researching the experience of African Americans in Grinnell, there was no local secretarial work open to blacks like her—not at Grinnell College, not at the Grinnell Glove factory, not at any other of the town's main employers. "They used to hire just anybody who could look like they could read ABC and that's all," Alice told Yeager. "They would hire those people, but not us."
Alice Lee Renfrow, 1924 Grinnellian
As noted in earlier posts, both Helen and Evanel had gone directly from Grinnell High School into college—Helen to Fisk University and Evanel to Iowa State University. But Alice did not follow this same course, perhaps because, as I speculated earlier, family finances at that point had become strained. Or perhaps Alice never intended to enter college, and, armed with a good set of skills suitable for office work, she had hoped to enter the work force immediately.
Official Entrance to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Hampton, VA
Whatever the explanation, records make clear that Alice enrolled at Hampton Institute only in autumn 1928, four years after graduating from high school.  Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, as it was formally known before 1930, occupies a special place in American education. As General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, its white founder observed, "the only hope for the future of the South is to lift the colored race through a practical education that shall fit them for life." Hence, Hampton emphasized learning by doing, and in its earliest stages the school concentrated upon training for the trades and for farming. But Armstrong and his successors were in search of more than skills; in their view, manual training also led to mental discipline and moral integrity. "Education for life," a slogan often pronounced in discussions of Hampton, aimed at developing character in Hampton's students as much as preparing them to earn a living.

What brought Alice to Hampton? Her younger brother, Rudolph, had been a student at Hampton Academy since 1923, and in the events that rocked the Institute in 1927 Rudolph had been one of the student leaders who had challenged the school's leadership (more on this in a future post). But, so far as I know, nothing about Rudolph's experience at Hampton proved especially attractive to Alice, although certainly she would have learned a great deal about the place from her brother. And, if the years after her 1924 graduation from Grinnell High School were as frustrating as the record indicates, Alice could very well have been eager to get out of Grinnell. Moreover, as her high school concentration upon the commercial course reveals, Alice was looking for an education in skills that would aid her in securing work in an office or business, and had no intention of becoming a teacher or researcher.

Academic Building--later Schurz Hall--at Hampton Institute; housed the offices of Business School (ca. 1920)
Since 1912 Hampton had added to the two-year Academy curriculum in business another two years of study beyond high school; Alice's commercial concentration at Grinnell High School was well-suited to this program.  In line with the Hampton's emphasis upon practical applications, the business curriculum provided students with experience in the school's own business operations, and  also, during one quarter of the second year, sent students out to near-by towns and cities to gain actual experience—what today might be called unpaid internships. The on-campus business courses included accounting, business English, business law, economics, money and banking, office training, and a range of electives. Graduates of this two-year program received a business school diploma, which Alice apparently received in 1930 (I could not confirm the year of graduation from Hampton).

Where Alice went immediately thereafter I am not sure, but certainly by April, 1935 she was resident in the District of Columbia, living at 904 Rhode Island Avenue NW, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA building, the first "colored" YWCA in the country, where 55 African American women lodged.  Long before Alice arrived the District of Columbia had been attracting large numbers of African Americans. According to the authors of the Federal Writers Project guide to Washington, in the 1930s the District was about one-quarter black, and although some African Americans in the District were living well, many were not. Unemployment among blacks in this era in Washington was estimated at 40%, and blacks accounted for more than 70% of the District's relief cases. Large proportions of the impoverished settled in makeshift housing concentrated in alleys, a practice that a 1934 law tried to eliminate. Housing "covenants," intended to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods, often had the unintended effect of creating concentrations of black settlement elsewhere in the city. As an example, northwest Washington, where Alice Renfrow took up residence, became one of the most densely populated black settlements in the District. Overall, it was not a very encouraging situation. To borrow the words of the 1937 guide, "The Negro of Washington has no voice in government, is economically proscribed, and segregated nearly as rigidly as in the southern cities he contemns [sic]."

Alice, who had grown up in Grinnell's Congregational Church (today's United Church of Christ-Congregational), found a worship home in Washington at Foundry United Methodist. Established in the early nineteenth century by a foundry magnate grateful that his business had escaped the desolation visited upon the capital by the British in 1812, Foundry had grown over the years, first occupying a building at 14th and G Streets, then in 1904 dedicating a new facility at 16th and Madison Streets, NW. This was the building that Alice would have seen in 1935.  Over the years various Presidents had visited Foundry, perhaps most famously on Christmas Day, 1941 on the heels of the Pearl Harbor attack, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the visiting British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, attended Foundry (Alice might well have been there for the occasion). In the 1990s, President and Mrs. Clinton attended Foundry fairly often, and President Clinton even preached there.
Foundry United Methodist Church, 16th and Madison Streets NW (ca. 1904)
Foundry came to occupy a fairly radical position within the Methodist denomination (having decided, for instance, to ignore the 1984 church ruling that excluded practicing homosexuals from the ministry), but whether it was very multi-racial is more difficult to know.  Early in its history the church had founded a daughter church—Asbury Chapel—for African Americans, and before the end of the nineteenth century these two churches had separated. Website photographs of the staff and congregation at Foundry over the years depict very few persons of color, so how many African Americans Alice Renfrow met at Foundry is hard to say. Even if she was a relatively rare black member, Alice could not have been too surprised, given her experience in Grinnell. Nevertheless, the choice of Foundry is an interesting one; as the 1937 guide to Washington points out, by that time there were numerous African American churches in the district, and some were very well-known—but for reasons of her own Alice chose Foundry.
Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Exactly how Alice decided to come to Washington is unknown. It seems that her younger brother, Rudolph, who had preceded her to Hampton, had also preceded her to Washington, so it may be that Rudolph had encouraged her move. Or perhaps she came because she knew that she had a good job in prospect. Whatever the stimulus, the reason for staying was clear enough: in April, 1935 Alice accepted appointment in the Card Division of the Library of Congress. So far as the record reveals, Alice never had any training specific to library science, and therefore evidently applied her business training at Hampton to her new position. It is no surprise, then that when 1940 census workers asked Alice about her employment, Alice called herself a "clerk" at the Library of Congress.
Card Division, Library of Congress (1919)
Indeed, the Card Division where Alice began work in the Library might better be understood as an office rather than a library. Here officials undertook to deliver to numerous public libraries across the country sets of catalog cards prepared and printed at the Library for each title acquired by the Library of Congress.  Since each title might generate a dozen or more cards (for subject headings as well as for author, title, series, etc.), and since the Library had accumulated more than five million titles by the time Alice started working there, the Card Division had to keep track of immense numbers of cards, as well as organize the timely shipment of cards to libraries all across the country. Without these cards, the banks of card catalogs then central to library work everywhere were useless.  

During this part of her career, Alice came into contact with Dr. E. Franklin Frazier (1894-1962), by then professor at Howard University but also "consultant in American Negro studies" to the Library of Congress. Frazier, who had taught at Morehouse College and Fisk University before coming to Howard, was well-known as a critic of racism, and had written widely on what he called the "pathology of race prejudice."  He was also a contributor to the 1950 UNESCO statement on race, and published several books, including the well-known The Negro Family in the United States (1939) and Black Bourgeoisie (1957).  Alice served as his secretary for some time, so it would be interesting to know what she thought of Frazier and what sort of conversations they shared. Given her own family experience and Frazier's interest in African American families, did she relay some Renfrow stories to Frazier, thereby adding a Grinnell-specific narrative to Frazier's overview? Did she share with him news about her siblings who, like others of their generation, had climbed into the "black bourgeoisie?" So far as I know, nothing survives to answer these questions, and we are therefore left to wonder.

At the Library of Congress Alice later worked briefly in the Copyright Office, and then settled into the Catalog Management Division as a filer. In 1964 she was named supervisor of filing, the position she held at the time of her 1976 retirement, completing almost forty-one years at the Library, a longevity that had earned her special recognition several times. Certainly Alice had good reason to be proud of her success in Washington, and it does not strain credulity to imagine that from time to time she recalled her difficulties in getting work back in Grinnell.  It was some years after her retirement when Stuart Yeager interviewed her, asking her to look back more than half a century. Alice had no difficulty doing so, remembering the harsh reality of racial bias that had prevented her from gaining secretarial work in 1920s Grinnell.

I do not know how long Alice lived at the YWCA on Rhode Island, but at some point before 1985, she moved out of the District, and took an apartment in Forestville, MD, located in nearby Prince George's County. Then, only about a year before her death she moved to  3101 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago, a fourteen-story senior living residence. Here she fell ill with cancer, and died March 10, 1997. Her body was returned to Grinnell where a memorial service was held a few days later. She was then buried in Grinnell's Hazelwood Cemetery, taking her place next to her parents and two brothers, both of whom had died before her, as had sisters Helen and Evanel. The simple gravestone, marked with a cross like her brothers' stones, adds only the words "Library of Congress," a suitable key to the most important stage of her life.
Apparently Alice did not leave behind the sort of continuing legacy that both Helen and Evanel had—no library was named after her nor did she have her name attached to any scholarship. Also different from Helen and Evanel, Alice in the end returned to Grinnell. Although her life story had taken her across the country and she had worked more than four decades in the nation's greatest—and one of the world's greatest—libraries, she returned to the tiny midwestern town in which she had grown up, circling back to take her final resting place with many of the same kids with whom she had gone to South School some ninety years earlier.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, you brought this woman alive for all of us - thank you!