The Jefferson Branch Library originally opened as a deposit station between 1912 to 1913 in the Soffel Drug Store at 2100 West Jefferson Street. Deposit stations reached underserved communities that did not have a full-service library near them and might be located in stores, fire stations, schools, or other locations. A sub-branch was then opened in 1915 in a rented store at 2065 West Jefferson Street, thanks to a community petition led by a local realtor, Fred E. Strong. Due to increased community use and need, the Library Board acquired a lot at 2211 West Jefferson Street for the branch library. Architect Clarence E. Noerenberg designed the one-story, wood-frame Spanish Colonial Revival Style building flanked by a row of Washingtonia palms. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the library first opened to the public in the first week of November 1923.
In October of 1983, local gang members broke in and torched the branch in what was thought to be retaliation for increased scrutiny of drug dealing in the adjacent Leslie N. Shaw Park and the painting-over of gang graffiti on the library building. The renovated branch reopened following the arson on June 5, 1985. The passage of the Proposition 1 bond in 1989 and securing a Housing and Community Development Block Grant allowed the library to be renovated and expanded to its current size of 9,000 square feet, tripling the size of the original building. After extensive repairs and renovation work were completed, the library reopened its doors to the public on September 21, 2002.
The library represents a passport to greater destinations and opportunities.—Todd Gray
On May 22, 1984, the Library Board passed a resolution to rename the library Jefferson - Vassie D. Wright Memorial Branch Library. The branch was dedicated in honor and memory of Vassie D. Wright (1899-1983), founder of the Our Authors Study Club, civic leader, community activist and organizer, real estate broker, and the first vice president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP. Mrs. Wright and a group of Terminal Annex postal employees formed the Our Authors Study Club (OASC) on February 14, 1945, for the purpose of studying the biographies of Black authors, reading and reviewing their works, and learning and educating others about the true history, achievements, and contributions of African Americans. In June of 1945, historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson—the “Father of Black History”—chartered the group to become members of the Los Angeles branch of his Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The OASC sponsored the first citywide celebration of Negro History Week (later expanded to Black History Month) in Los Angeles in 1949. Mrs. Wright helped initiate a Black History curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Dorsey and Manual Arts Adult Schools. Wright was honored by the city of Los Angeles and then-Mayor Tom Bradley presented an award to her shortly before her death for her role in promoting the study of Black history in Southern California.
[My] pieces will serve to inspire and confirm what I think are the greatest attributes of a library—to open up a larger, illuminating world to the reader and to provide a space where the pursuit of knowledge is always secure.—Todd Gray
The Jefferson - Vassie D. Wright Memorial Branch Library is home to three photo pieces (one framed digital photograph and two hanging photo sculptures) by Los Angeles native and Cal Arts graduate multimedia artist Todd Gray. His love of music led to his career in art. As a teen, he began photographing concerts and he went on to become a music photographer, including serving as Michael Jackson’s official photographer from 1979-1983. He achieved acclaim as an artist as he upended standard photography with his complex photo compositions and exploration of the diaspora, colonialism, and identity. Awarded the 2022-23 Rome Prize and Italian Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, Gray continues working with photo assemblages to explore “historic socio-political, cultural and economic relationships between Western Europe, post-colonial Africa, and North America.” His public art includes digital photo sculptures and a swirling gold seashell sculpture at Baldwin Hills Branch Library, and a series of photographic portraits of the artists behind the artworks in the Metro system, including that of Cha-Rie Tang, whose works can be found at the Exposition Park - Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Regional Library.
It is my hope that after continued exposure to the library and the photo pieces I create, the patrons will feel as if the space itself is extending a friendly hand of welcome to each individual spending time there.—Todd Gray
Mounted above the fireplace in the Children’s Reading Room is a framed, highly glossy digital photograph of a smiling creature with a friendly, cartoon rabbit head floating in space. Words—fly, explore, read, wonder—dance across the layers of the work, mesmerizing, shifting, appearing, and disappearing dependent upon the observation angle; a palimpsest that becomes image or text revealed as one moves.
Reading is the tool to reach the stars.—Todd Gray
Suspended from the ceiling with steel wire above the Reference Desk and the Young Adult section are photo images and text designed to “provide a message of inspiration and encouragement.” The artworks are opaque when lit from the front and transparent when lit from the rear, creating the illusion of two different pieces depending upon where you are standing and the room illumination at the time. The pieces are kinetic—gently revolving, changing direction, and always in motion.
Above the Reference Desk, the ladder soars into the sky with quotes of inspiration and promise in both English and Spanish:
Be who you are / it’s the journey that matters / Promete poco y haz mucho. / Harvest knowledge / Our destination is to where / we have never been before. / un viaje de mil millas empieza / con el primer paso / The idea behind the idea / sudden realization
Floating above the Young Adult section are angel’s wings constructed entirely of text and words in English and Spanish:
toma vuelo en tus sueños / within reach / in its own time / momentos de soledad / posiciones flexibles / unforeseen possibilities / cause & effect / beautiful endings / lifted spirit / celebration / sabiduria / propia / concentrate / sing your song / unknown territory / wise acts / invisible labor / answers without questions / memorias del hogar rompiendo barreras / despierta / wake up / anything is possible / keep rising / canta tu canción / mira hacia las estrellas
Look closely. The works seem to say it is here that all will be revealed, all will be illuminated. It is the library itself providing the illumination, the knowledge that is yours for the taking. Whatever viewpoint you are looking from, it is here, waiting.