This study explores the impact of funding for library-related projects from the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the Works Progress Administration on the availability of library services and reading materials for African Americans in the South and border states, specifically Oklahoma, in the 1930s and 1940s. Using a variety of archival sources, including the Julius Rosenwald papers, the WPA records at the National Archives, Oklahoma Library Commission annual reports, and records of the Rosenwald projects at the Oklahoma HistoricalSociety, the article attempts to evaluate whether these outside interventions actually changed the geography of reading for African Americans during that time period.
Recent research identifies the mere geographic proximity of reading materials as influential in the development of literacy and the reading habit. The dearth of reading materials available to African Americans in the South at least until the 1960s because of school and library segregation has been well documented. Thus efforts to ameliorate differential access to reading materials and thereby enhance literacy and the reading habit should be of interest and concern to librarians, educators, and policy makers as well as social historians. It may be especially pertinent as support for public and school libraries, the targets of these two programs, is threatened.
Unfortunately, impact is difficult to determine at a historical remove. This study provides tantalizing clues in letters of thanks, libraries that persisted after funding disappeared, and books that were published in hopes of finding a market in the Rosenwald library projects but no definitive answers to how the reading map of Oklahoma may have been permanently reshaped by the interventions of the Rosenwald Fund and the WPA Library Programs.