A Plea to Save the Libraries – Cossitt Important to Memphians

As we observe the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, the mayor could announce that closing library branches is off the table this year, and that he is bringing in some experienced people to actually run the library system.

He could also announce that he's found the money to spruce up Cossitt. And he will ask the folks at the Tennessee Historical Commission to put the branch on the National Register of Historic Places.

That’s the future the Cossitt deserves and what Otis Sanford, Editor of Opinion and Editorials for The Commercial Appeal advocated for it, four other branch libraries, and four community centers that Mayor Herenton said he intends to close. In case you missed it, here is Mr. Sanford's complete editorial from Sunday's Commercial Appeal.

If Mayor Herenton does step down, why not Otis Sanford for Mayor!!

Save libraries, starting with Cossitt
By Otis L. Sanford
Sunday, March 30, 2008
The Commercial Appeal

With Willie Herenton, you're always assured of one thing -- there will be drama.

So much drama that, as I write this column on Tuesday to accommodate an early press deadline for our special section today, I dare not discuss the mayor's irrational statements about leaving City Hall to take over Memphis City Schools.

Chances are, what he said on Monday likely was reversed by Thursday.
So why bother?

Instead, I'm still trying to reconcile Herenton's recent announcement that he plans to close five library branches and four community centers around town.

How's this for cruel irony? Hizzoner has found renewed passion for education. But he can't find the money to keep public libraries clean and open in a city that's desperate for as many learned people as we can get.

In a guest column in this newspaper last week, Herenton said the closings are a simple matter of economics. The city needs more tax dollars and shutting these facilities will save more than $2 million.

"In this current economic climate, something has to give," the mayor wrote.

Herenton does have a bit of cover for this drastic move. A $700,000 efficiency study last year suggested that the city consider closing the facilities because they are either unused, too small or in severe disrepair.

Believe me, I am all for a more efficient government. But it would be an absolute shame to close any library, particularly the Cossitt branch Downtown with its rich history.

In fact, it's equally shameful that no one has seen fit to recommend Cossitt for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cossitt is located on the bluff at Front and Monroe overlooking the Mississippi River. The original building, a Romanesque red sandstone structure, was Memphis' first public library when it opened in April 1893.

It was established by the heirs of Frederick Cossitt, a onetime Memphian who made his fortune as a wholesale dry goods trader. The current Cossitt building facing Front Street opened in the late 1950s.

But what makes the place a real historic treasure for Memphis is what occurred there on March 19, 1960, as the civil rights movement began to engulf the South.

More than 20 African-American students from LeMoyne College, Herenton's alma mater, decided to test the city's rigid segregation policies by staging a sit-in at the Cossitt Library. They were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, loitering and threatening the peace.

Memphian Dot Truitt Walk was one of those students. "We had heard about all the other students" challenging Jim Crow laws in cities around the South, said Walk, now 72. "We felt we had to do something too."

While planning for the sit-in, Walk said, "We had secret meetings because it was rather dangerous. There were so many black people that were against us."

Walk vividly recalls that after police forcibly removed the students from the library, she was spit on while waiting to be loaded on to a police paddy wagon.

As a result of the sit-in, Memphis civil rights leaders, led by Jesse Turner, filed a federal lawsuit to integrate the city's libraries, and the branches were opened to all races in October 1960.

Today, Cossitt, also known as the Cossitt-Goodwyn Institute Branch, is uninviting and suffering from neglect. The fountain outside the front door doesn't work, the windows are dirty and the carpeting inside is a mess. Several letters, including the first M in Memphis, are missing from the building's official name on the outside wall.

Most folks who visit these days are either waiting for a MATA bus at the corner or are homeless people looking for peace and quiet.

If Cossitt is closed, it's clear to me that the mayor's ultimate intent is to tear down the building. It's located on land, known as the Promenade, which was given to the city by Memphis' original founders. It's also prime real estate for eager developers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not for saving old buildings just for the heck of it. But I am a proponent of saving worthy institutions of learning, particularly one that has such a strong connection to this city's civil rights history.

So if Herenton, the drama king, wants to say something really dramatic this week, here's an idea. As we observe the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, the mayor could announce that closing library branches is off the table this year, and that he is bringing in some experienced people to actually run the library system.