Lending a piece of history to Pratt to mark renovation

First library card issued to a black Marylander among items for annex

April 18, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Louise Cummings Dorcas got a glimpse more than a century into the city's past yesterday when she saw an enlarged image of her late father's library card - the first issued to an African-American in Maryland.

Dorcas, an art teacher at Frederick Douglass High School for about 40 years, does not remember her father, Harry S. Cummings, who died in 1917. But she has been told many times that he was one of the first two black graduates of the University of Maryland Law School and the first black member of the City Council. She has seen the letters written to her father from Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.

Issued by the newly opened Enoch Pratt Free Library in 1886, the card sternly advises patrons that if a book is missing for 20 days, a messenger will be sent for it. Her brother donated the library card to the Maryland Historical Society years ago, where it was hidden away in an obscure corner.

But the Pratt Library's groundbreaking ceremony yesterday for an expansion and renovation of the central library at 400 Cathedral St. was a good reason to return the card to the city library system.

It will soon have a new home. The library's expansion plans include an annex that will house a reading room for display of the library's African-American collection, much of which is kept cloistered in the Pratt's 1933 main building.

"We have anti-slavery pamphlets from before the Civil War, books, journals, family genealogy, slave narratives, travel logs," said Vivian Walker, manager of the African-American collection. "My charge is to let people know there's a premier collection in Baltimore."

The 14,000-volume African-American collection will be named after Eddie and Sylvia Brown, who gave $1 million last year, library officials said.

The annex also will display a collection of H.L. Mencken's letters and papers, library officials said.

The planned annex and renovation of the Depression-era building's heating and air-conditioning system will cost about $60 million and take four or five years to finish, state officials said. The annex construction, which started in February, is a state-funded, $10.6 million project.

The groundbreaking comes less than eight months after the library closed five of 26 branches, sparking a lawsuit by Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.

"We should never think of one or the other, community or central libraries. We should fund both. ... I applaud ACORN. We're all fighting for the same thing," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday.

After acknowledging the applause of Glendening, Mayor Martin O'Malley and library board members at yesterday's event, Dorcas of West Baltimore said, "It was a wonderful experience."

Her father graduated from law school in 1889, two years before it became racially segregated for the next 44 years. Thurgood Marshall was the local counsel on a 1935 lawsuit brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It broke down the color barrier, said Larry S. Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Speaking of her late father, Dorcas said in an interview, "He broke ground, a different kind of ground."

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