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Ruth Brown
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Photo of Ruth BrownIn November 1919 Ruth Brown became the new librarian at the Bartlesville Public Library. Although she chose not to marry, her library patrons became her family. She hired promising young adults and helped others go on to college; a few also chose to work in the profession. One retired from the Library of Congress, and another became the head of the Research Libraries of the New York Public Library. Two orphaned sisters living in foster homes were special to Miss Brown and after much effort, she was allowed to adopt Ellen Holliday and become a foster mother to her older sister Holly.

In 1920, Miss Brown was elected as Secretary of OLA, 1926 she became Treasurer, and 1931 was voted President. In her address to the membership at Annual Conference in Weatherford that year, she encouraged her colleagues to serve everyone during the depression years and “reduce to a minimum worry about lost books and other red tape” so library access would be available to all.

In a 1932 newspaper article, Miss Brown related a typical day which included use by whites and African Americans alike. With the approval of her Library Board she held segregated story hours for children, took story hours to Douglass School, the public school for African-American children, and eventually brought Douglass children into the library. Her continued and growing commitment to library service for all and racial equality overflowed into her personal activities.

In postwar Bartlesville, these activities included membership and secretary of the newly formed Committee on the Practice of Democracy (COPD) in 1946. February was Brotherhood Month in 1950 and Miss Brown, along with two young African American teacher friends entered Bartlesville’s largest drugstore that served food and seated themselves. When service was refused, Miss Brown asked why, and was curtly answered. The ladies left, planning to repeat the action if repercussions were not “too violent.” Two weeks later, Senator Joseph McCarthy exploded on the national scene with his accusations of card carrying Communists in the government. This event not only sent the country into a spin, but it also gave opponents of Miss Brown’s interracial activities an opportunity to attack under false pretenses.

At a City Commission meeting that month, a group of citizens accused Miss Brown of supplying “subversive” materials at the library, namely the Nation magazine and at a later Commission meeting also New Republic and Soviet Russia Today. The Library Board, in an attempt to “deflect the attack, removed the offending magazines to locked storage.” A few days later on the front page of the local newspaper, a photo of the offending magazines and two books entitled, The Russians appeared. The subtitle, The Land, the People and Why They Fight was covered. The book was published in 1943 during the time that Russia and the United States were allies during WWII. Neither copy was owned by the Bartlesville Library. It has been speculated that the library custodian, whether by agreement or coercion, had let members of the opposing group enter the area while the library was closed. No one had authorized the photo and the displayed books were never located. For the next several months there were strong feeling pro and con concerning Miss Brown and the library.

The local YWCA was also under attack as well for allowing a group of African American Y-Teens to meet in the new YWCA building; coupled with Miss Brown’s strong support of desegregation and civil rights, and the volatile emotions stirred by opposing viewpoints created a furor in the small city of Bartlesville. The Library’s Annual Report was submitted to the City Commissioners in April, but it was not officially received until the end of May. At that time, the Commissioners changed the city’s governing ordinance pertaining to the library effective July 1. The library board was dismissed and, a new set of members were appointed. None of the members were supporters of Miss Brown or the library, and one member even remarked with surprise to be named because he had been a poor student and had never used the library.

Two weeks later, Miss Brown was summoned to an executive session of the city commissioners. No one was present to record the interrogation, and she was concerned that her words would be misrepresented; she agreed to answer questions pertaining to her personal life, only in writing, as she had been advised by her lawyer. According to her written account a few days later, many of the questions dealt with her interracial activities and her loyalty. Within the hour, Miss Brown was notified that she was out of a job. The story continues with a law suit presented eventually to the Oklahoma Supreme Court over two years later. Miss Brown and her supporters lost the case as it had been based on the issue of censorship rather than the issue of civil liberties and intellectual freedom.

The information presented here came from the files of the Local and Family History Area of the Bartlesville Public Library and from The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise S. Robbins. We recommend reading Ms. Robbins book for a more thorough understanding of these events and their impact.

Ruth Brown died in Collinsville, Oklahoma, on September 10, 1975.

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