GUESTWORDS: Rescuing Ernestine Rose

By Ann Sandford

    Ernestine Rose was the daughter of a Bridgehampton farmer and a school principal, and the niece of Judge Henry Chatfield, who was a prominent lawyer in Suffolk County and, in 1910, the first president of Bridgehampton Bank. From these beginnings, Ernestine would grow up to become a city librarian, World War I service librarian, a founder of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a professor, author, president of her state library association, and, in retirement, a civic-minded leader in her beloved hometown. How did I find her and what factors propelled her extraordinary career?
    I first encountered “Miss Rose,” her legacy, that is, when I began to research my book about the history of Bridgehampton, “Grandfather Lived Here.” At that time I was struck by her work in local community-building, and that recognition helped me to recall that in the 1950s I had greeted her on Bridgehampton’s Main Street, listening as she and my mother dissected some tidbit of local history. These memories stuck with me.
    The next time I noticed her, around 2005, she was on film. Made by the United States Information Service in 1950 and sponsored by the State Department, “Problems of a Small Community” featured Rose, along with other Bridgehampton notables. Its initial distribution was intended for post-World War II occupied Germany, to show democracy at work at the local level. Curious about this, I explored more sources: the standard local histories, obituaries, and articles in the New York Times archive on the Internet.
    I thought my research was over. Her life would remain a mere curiosity to me — until a chance meeting with Averill Geus, the East Hampton historian who had lived in Wainscott as a child. I mentioned my findings about the librarian to her and then I listened to Averill’s remarkable story: In 2005, on a tip, she learned about a Dumpster sitting in front of the Wainscott farmhouse of Rose’s long-deceased first cousin. Averill proceeded to locate this Dumpster and removed everything that appeared salvageable, including Rose’s papers, family photograph albums, and other artifacts, put there by a younger generation of cousins who were cleaning out the attic, readying the property for sale.
    Because Rose was from Bridgehampton and Averill knew my work on local history, she felt that I should become the steward of these treasures. I visited my colleague in her East Hampton home and collected everything she had, including World War I-related photographs, many stained by rainwater. The collection is now at Bridgehampton’s Hampton Library. After many years, I realized that Ernestine Rose deserved further study.
    Given the family’s emphasis on education, it is not surprising that Ernestine would graduate from the private Bridgehampton Academy. Like her uncle, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and upon graduation trained at the New York State Library School in Albany, where she received her degree in 1904.
    Four years later, at 28, she accepted a position that would crystallize the direction of her thinking and her leadership activities for the next 40 years: She became the librarian of a “Carnegie library,” at the branch of the N.Y.P.L. known as the “polyglot” library. It was in a largely Chinese neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, in 1911, she began to add books in Chinese, mostly on science, to augment the collection that already included works in many languages. She was among the earliest public librarians to do so. At other branches where she served, she exhibited the works of local artists.
    In 1917, her pamphlet “Bridging the Gulf, Work With the Russian Jews and Other Newcomers” argued that a library must bring different ethnic groups together, not to “Americanize” them, but to serve as the vehicle for implementing what we today would call cultural pluralism. But World War I interrupted Ernestine’s work. She accepted a series of war-related jobs as a member of the American Library Association’s Library War Service, which distributed books to soldiers in Army camps and hospitals, stateside and abroad.
    In Paris during the “demobilization period,” as her 1919 passport application states, Rose organized separate library services for black soldiers, as required by Army practices of segregation. The highlight of that year in Europe, however, was her work in organizing the soldiers’ library for the American Army of Occupation in Germany, headquartered in Coblenz, in the Rhine Valley. Artifacts from this period form the core of the surviving farmhouse Dumpster collection — a map, a watercolor book, and her photographs of the American library, its staff, and the war’s destruction.
    Upon her return from Europe in 1920, these experiences qualified her as an ideal candidate to lead the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, known as the Harlem branch. She accepted the position and during the 1920s, the decade that witnessed the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, this institutional reformer became the first librarian in a major city to assemble an integrated professional staff. She was also one who fought racism.
    In a 1922 article, “Where White and Black Meet,” Rose outlined her library’s activities. Among them: evening book discussions and lectures advised by a committee comprising “people of the neighborhood,” and art events to “stimulate race consciousness.” The “most serious duty” of the library, however, was to books, the “medium of progress.” Her friend Langston Hughes would have agreed. Reflecting on the Harlem where he settled in the early 1920s, the famous African-American poet wrote, 40 years later, that Rose was “a warm and wonderful librarian . . . [who] made newcomers feel welcome.”
    Not surprisingly, Rose also acquired documents and artifacts for the Harlem branch that pertained to African-American culture. In 1925, the formation of the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints was announced by Rose, the branch’s Citizens Committee, and N.Y.P.L. officials. A year later, her fund-raising efforts helped in the purchase of materials collected by Arthur Schomburg, an African-American from Puerto Rico. Today, those items form the core of the largest archive of its kind in the world, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in a complex on the northwest corner of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, at Lenox Avenue.
    By 1933, Miss Rose was president of the New York (State) Library Association, about the time that the Harlem branch library was hosting a Works Progress Administration writer’s project. In 1939, as chairwoman of the American Library Association’s adult education board, she presented the first Library Bill of Rights to the annual conference. A year later, the American Negro Theatre was founded, with performances held in the basement of the 135th Street Branch.
    Rose retired in 1942 and was succeeded by the assistant librarian, Dorothy Homer, an African-American. Twenty years later, Homer was quoted in the obituary for Rose that appeared in The New York Amsterdam News: “Negroes should honor her,” she said, “because she took a stand for integration at a time when it was unpopular to do so. . . .” Rose continued to teach at the Columbia University School of Library Science while she became an associate in library service at the Institute on Library Services in Hospitals. At the close of World War II, she began to lead projects in the field of bibliotherapy, the curative use of books.
    In 1946, Miss Rose returned to Bridgehampton. Ever the activist, during this emerging cold war period she helped to organize the Community Council, the subject of the State Department’s film. The council’s work included improving the living conditions of migrant laborers who lived in the hamlet’s “poorer neighborhoods” along the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. A few years later, Rose led in founding the Bridgehampton Women’s Association.
    In 1954, Columbia University published her book, “The Public Library in American Life,” written during her retirement in Bridgehampton. Rose’s conviction that “the institutions of democracy . . . [are the] schools and libraries” of the nation permeates the book. In that same year, she became co-chair of the Bridgehampton Tercentenary Committee. Her leadership of the Tercentenary led to her election as the first president of the Bridgehampton Historical Society in 1956.
    During her library career of 40 years, this leader’s people were immigrants, African-Americans, soldiers, the sick, and her students at Columbia University and elsewhere. Given her particular focus on immigrants and African-Americans, I became curious about possible sources of her moral impulse toward social activism. One source might rest with the family and community in which she was raised. As a girl growing up in rural Bridgehampton, she would have known some among the black people who had journeyed north after the Civil War, just as she might have interacted with some among the small group of Irish immigrants that settled in the hamlet in the late-19th century to work on the farms. These experiences with diversity go far to account for Rose’s fierce commitment to social equality in her adult life.
    On the occasion of her library retirement in 1942 and at her memorial service in 1961, this champion of social uplift was proudly honored. At the retirement ceremony held at the 135th Street Branch, testimonials of gratitude were delivered and a plaque was bestowed. It read: “Librarian Friend of Harlem.”
    This white woman from a rural background had moved to various cities in the world and, in retirement, returned home to become an advocate for civic causes. Her biography is best placed in the broad context of American local-world history, and to do that, researchers must look at what is around them, to scavenge in unique places, even Dumpsters, for their stories.


    Ann Sandford will speak about Ernestine Rose’s life and work on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Rogers Mansion in Southampton to mark Women’s History Month. Ms. Sandford, a regular contributor of book reviews to The Star, lives in Sagaponack.

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