The Incomparable Miriam Matthews

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
Miriam Matthews, 1920
Miriam Matthews: Shades of L.A. Collection, 1920

As African American Heritage Month ends and Women’s Heritage Month begins, I’d like to draw attention to Miriam Matthews, the trailblazing librarian whose lifetime of achievements are worthy of celebration in any month.

Miriam Matthews was the first African American librarian employed by the Los Angeles Public Library. She would remain the only African American librarian employed by the Los Angeles Public Library for the next twenty years.

Born in Pensacola, Florida in 1905, Miriam Matthews came to California with her family when she was two years old. Her parents left Florida because they did not want to raise their three children in a “segregated atmosphere.”

Her father, Reuben Hearde Matthews, Jr., was a painter, and her mother, Fannie Elijah Matthews, was a homemaker who also managed the finances of her husband’s painting business.

Wanting the best education for their children, Miriam’s parents used her uncle’s address so Miriam and her siblings could attend Los Angeles High School, thought to be the best high school in the city at the time. Miriam found most of her teachers at L.A. High to be unbiased and she was encouraged to take college prep classes. When her English teacher failed to inform her that she was eligible for senior honors, she marched up to him with a copy of her transcript. Without explaining himself, he admitted that she was indeed eligible. It was the first of many times in her life when she would speak up for herself and against injustice.

“...later on in work, even though I wasn’t what I’d call a brash, forward-type person, I always quietly said my piece when I thought something was not right.”

Matthews graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1922, at the age of 16. She started college at the University of California, Southern Branch (renamed UCLA in 1927) but transferred to Berkeley after two years because she wanted to live away from home. She graduated with a degree in Spanish. Though nearly everyone who knew her thought Matthews should be a teacher (one of the few careers open to African American women), teaching did not appeal to her. After hearing that a friend was considering librarianship, Miriam thought, “Oh librarian, that’s a nice idea.”

Matthews completed the year-long librarianship certificate program at Berkeley in May of 1927 and returned to Los Angeles to begin her career.

“Well, immediately, I don't remember whether it was the very first day, I went down to Central Library and asked to see the Assistant City Librarian and told her I'd finished the course and was looking for a job.”

After showing her around the library, the assistant city librarian asked if Miriam was planning to take the Civil Service exam. When Miriam answered affirmatively, the administrator told her the exam was usually given in June and had her fill out a postcard to receive notification when it would take place. Only when a family friend phoned Miriam’s mother did she learn that the announcement was already out and the filing period was about to close. Matthews hurried to the Civil Service office downtown and filled out the application form on the last day to file. Despite being misled, Matthews scored well and was hired by the Los Angeles Public Library.

Her first permanent post was assistant librarian at the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch, located in a predominantly white neighborhood. Matthews was popular with the white patrons, who often asked for her by name. One of these patrons told the City Librarian that Miriam Matthews was so good she should have a branch of her own.

Matthews was named the librarian in charge at the Helen Hunt Jackson Branch in 1929. She started a successful book club and began doing book reviews on local radio stations KHJ and KFI. Circulation at the branch during her five years there was the highest in the branch’s history. It was at the Helen Hunt Jackson Branch that Matthews discovered a small collection of books by and about African Americans. In her own words, “That's the first I ever knew anything about Negro history or anything else.” Matthews started building a personal collection of books and photographs documenting the history and contributions of African Americans in California. Her extensive collection became a resource used by librarians and researchers across the country.

In 1934, Matthews became branch librarian at the Vernon Branch, and in 1940 the Watts Branch was added to her duties.

Librarian Miriam Matthews
Miriam Matthews, [1935]. Shades of L.A. Photo Collection

Matthews was active in professional and community affairs. She advocated for the observance of Negro History Week (now African American History Month) in Los Angeles. She co-founded the Associated Artists Gallery. As a member and chair of the California Library Association’s Committee on Intellectual Freedom, Matthews successfully fought an effort to establish a board of censors in the Los Angeles County Public Library. The fight for the freedom to read was a constant throughout Matthews’ career.

"That's one of the most important things: the right to read and to read everything, and then make your own decision about what's the right side. If you can't get the pros and cons, then you haven't a basis for making a good judgment."

In 1944, after ten years as a branch librarian, Matthews felt her career at the library had stalled so she enrolled at the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago to earn a Master’s in library science. The Graduate Library School was one of the top schools for library science in the country. Upon completion of the program in 1945, Matthews returned to the library and worked as the branch librarian at the Washington Irving Branch Library.

In 1949, City Librarian Harold L. Hamill promoted Matthews to the position of Regional Librarian for the South Central Region. As Regional Librarian, she would be the supervisor of twelve branch libraries. A committee of white citizens protested her appointment, but Hamill refused to reconsider, stating that Matthews was the most qualified candidate. She was, in fact, ranked first on the Civil Service list.

Miriam Matthews held that position until she retired from the Los Angeles Public Library in 1960, after over three decades of public service. Following her retirement, Matthews continued to serve on numerous boards and committees and to pursue her many varied interests. In 1977 Matthews was named to the California Heritage Preservation Commission, where she played a major role in setting up a permanent archive with a professional archivist for the City of Los Angeles.

In 1978, Matthews was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Los Angeles 200 Committee to help plan Los Angeles’ bicentennial celebration in 1981. She proposed and fought for the installation of a new monument to honor the 44 pobladores who journeyed north from Mexico to found Los Angeles on September 4, 1781. She insisted that the monument recognize the multi-ethnic background of the pobladores. Over half of the pobladores were of African descent. The plaque was unveiled in the plaza of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park on September 4, 1981, and lists each of the pobladores by name, race, sex, and age.

Founders Plaque with Miriam Matthews standing to the right of it
The Founders Plaque with Miriam Matthews standing to the right, [May 16, 1982]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection
Miriam Matthews  plaque underneath Founders Plaque
Miriam Matthews Plaque underneath Founders Plaque, [May 1983]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection

With no formal art training, Miriam Matthews built a large art collection, with a focus on African American artists.

“But main thing, I've just chosen things that I would enjoy having. Once in a while, I'd buy it because it was by a particular artist who had a reputation. But for the most part, they're just things I would enjoy having.”

Works from her collection have been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Long Beach Art Museum, The California African American Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, among many others.

Throughout her long life, Matthews never stopped fighting racial injustice and working to promote libraries, Black history, and intellectual freedom.

“So all in all I have managed to keep busy and still have a large agenda to complete before—I always say—before I die. And so I hope that some of the things I've done, you know, will be of use to people who live on after me.”

Miriam Matthews passed away in Mercer Island, Washington in 2003 at the age of 97. Matthews’ legacy made an impact that still resonates strongly today. She worked and advocated for library collections to be more inclusive and reflective of the city’s multiracial population and history. Known as the “Dean of Los Angeles Black History,” Matthews extensive personal collection of books, documents, and photographs related to Los Angeles and California history was acquired by UCLA Library’s Special Collections.

The Hyde Park Branch Library was renamed in dedication to Miriam Matthews in 2004.

Hyde Park branch of the library
The Hyde Park Miriam Matthews Branch, photo credit: Gary Leonard

In 2012, Matthews was a member of the initial class of inductees to the California Library Hall of Fame. Honorees are recognized for their "historically significant and sustained contribution to the improvement of California libraries."

Los Angeles Public Library’s Octavia Lab has published a coloring page for Miriam Matthews.

miriam matthews coloring page
Downloadable coloring page of Miriam Matthews from Hidden Heroes, Historic Places, a coloring book highlighting the stories of 15 forgotten trailblazing Angelenos

To see more coloring pages, the Octavia Lab has published Hidden Heroes, Historic Places, a coloring book highlighting the stories of 15 forgotten trailblazing Angelenos. The book is available at the Library Store and proceeds support library programs, including the Octavia Lab, Central Library's maker space.