Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #3 – Ruth Brown

Librarians are demure, quiet, old ladies with buns, right? Well, not exactly.

Although Ruth Brown fits much of the stereotype – a little bit frumpy, a single woman, plain in appearance – she took a stand for Civil Rights in her library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1950 that cost her her job. What she did took courage and conviction. Her story is told in the book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise Robbins.

Don’t let the “library” aspect of this one throw you. It is full of intrigue, community infighting, passionate defenders of the status quo, persons willing to take great risks in an attempt to awaken a new social consciousness and justice among their fellow townspeople, class warfare, Red Scares, fabrication of evidence, issues over power and gender, and more. It is, in fact, a bit of a thriller.

Brown had been a librarian for many years in Bartlesville, leading a somewhat true-to-stereotype existence. But as the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII were revealed, she and other like-minded individuals formed the “Committee on the Practice of Democracy” to fight discrimination.

Bartlesville was very much a segregated city in the late 1940s. African-Americans were allowed to use the library and did not have to use a separate facility, but their use and access of materials was under different rules and conditions than white customers, at least prior to World War II.

But when Brown walked into a diner on night in 1950 with two African-American friends who were teachers, she crossed the racial line. The campaign to label her a subversive communist – and thus, oust her from her position, was underway. The American Legion, the D.A.R., and corporate magnates from Phillips Petroleum mounted an overwhelming effort to have her dismissed. She was accused of distributing “subversive” literature, although the books in question were actually recommended by the national professional library association as proper to have in a library, in order to represent a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. One was even written during WWII when the Russians were our allies, but now it was labeled “subversive.”

Ruth Brown knew when she walked into that diner that day that her act would be provocative, and that her membership in the Committee on the Practice of Democracy could get her fired. She did it anyway.

As a single woman, she did not have much to fall back on after a job loss, personally or financially. She ended up leaving town of her own volition. But her cause was taken to the courts, the national library association made important innovations in their practices and policies, and even Hollywood got into the act. A few years after the actual events, her story was thinly fictionalized and turned into a movie called Storm Center. Hollywood had been through the mill with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the producers saw in her story a reflection of their own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book, besides Ruth Brown’s story, is that it unveils so many aspects of American society that we are still struggling with today, particularly in recent years. “Terrorism” is the “new Communism” – and actions are taken today by our government and individuals in the name of “fighting terrorists” that 50 years ago, were used to defend America against the threat of communism. Although the events described in the book happened 50 years ago, much of it is very relevant to today. The book deals with issues of racial equality and justice, women’s power (or lack thereof), censorship, class and economic issues, and more.

Learn more about this brave woman, and be inspired! You’ll never think of librarians as “boring” again.

© writingreading, 2009

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