Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Sorority-backed bookmobile brought literacy to millions in Jim Crow era South

Submitted by: Monica White, Ed.D, President, Denise Glaudé, Heritage and Archives, Chair and Marquis Taylor, Research Assistant/Junior Scholar, New York Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc

The Delta Sigma Theta Bookmobile

The Delta Sigma Theta Bookmobile

The American Library Association recently celebrated its fifth national Bookmobile Day during National Library Week 2016. This celebration caught the attention of the New York Alumnae Chapter (NYAC) of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (DST).

Deltas were major champions for books to be accessible to children and adults—especially in the south. The sorority was founded at Howard University in 1913 on a desire to serve the community and advocate less fortunate. Alpha Beta Chapter (later renamed Alpha Sigma and now named NYAC), its first graduate chapter, was chartered in 1921.

For many African Americans, reading led to achievement; educational advancement, improved employment opportunities and better quality lives.  DST identified the need for a “traveling library” to address the lack of access to public libraries and quality books due to segregation in the south.

In 1937, DST launched its Library Committee to provide books for people in rural southern communities. Members of New York City’s Alpha Sigma Chapter (now NYAC) announced the project at a press conference encouraging financial support from members of the Sorority and the general public. Despite many obstacles, including wartime needs, lack of funding, staffing shortages, even delays in book orders, the public service project continued for more than a decade.

("Deltas Bookmobile To Serve Two Million" (PDF) )

By the mid-1940s, momentum and money increased as each chapter contributed $2.50 toward the purchase of 10 books.  The name of the contributing chapter appeared in the donated books.  The administrative “traveling library” needs were organized and met by local and regional librarians.

Later, the Ford bookmobile was purchased, equipped with books and celebrated in New York before leaving to serve people in rural areas of Georgia . Maude Watkins, a New York librarian and member of NYAC, served as Acting Director.  The mobile library in Carrollton County gained a tremendous amount of interest by the community.

("Deltas Launch Bookmobile with TV, Luncheon, Tea," New York Amsterdam News (1943-1961); Jun 17, 1950 (PDF))

In 1951, ALA presented its Letter Award to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., for its Bookmobile program in the South.  Maude Watkins, who was also NYAC past president, received the award on behalf of the sorority.

("Deltas Win American Library Award," The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); Jul 21, 1951 (PDF))

The sorority’s last bookmobile project was implemented in South Carolina 1954, after which, the Sorority disbanded the National Library Committee. DST has continued to promote literacy activities throughout the decades, responding to relevant community needs. The sorority’s activities are guided by its Five-Point Programmatic Thrust, which includes Educational Development.

Delta’s advocacy for educational equity continues even today, where use of electronic devices offer plenty reading options, African Americans who still face a digital divide, lagging behind in technology access and use. Today, NYAC applauds The American Library Association, Outreach Division, for continuing to research and support ways to serve the African American community and bridge this divide.

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