The Los Angeles Public Library has seven and a "half" branches dedicated to extraordinary women. Let’s take a look at these women and their namesake libraries for Women’s History Month.
Vermont Square Branch (dedicated December 10, 2021)
In December 2021, the beautiful Vermont Square Branch Library was dedicated in honor of former Los Angeles City Councilmember and civil rights activist Rita Walters (1930-2020). Following twelve years as the only African American member on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, Ms. Walters became the first Black woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council. In each of these public service positions, Ms. Walters fought for racial equality, including school integration and pushing for more diversity in the city’s hiring practices. She served on the City Council from 1991 to 2001 and later served on the Board of Library Commissioners from 2002 to 2017. During her tenure on the Board of Library Commissioners, 65 branch libraries were built or renovated.
Opened in March 1913, the Vermont Square Branch was Los Angeles’ first Carnegie library and is located in Council District 9, which was Ms. Walters’ City Council district.
Hyde Park Miriam Matthews Branch (dedicated December 2004)
The Hyde Park Branch was dedicated in honor of librarian, historian, and art collector Miriam Matthews (1905-2003) in December 2004. Ms. Matthews was the first credentialed African American librarian in California and worked at the Los Angeles Public Library from 1927 to 1960. She worked her way up in the library system from an assistant librarian in a small branch to the regional librarian in charge of multiple branches. In fact, the Hyde Park Branch was one of the twelve libraries Ms. Matthews oversaw as the Regional Librarian of the South-Central Region. Visit Kelly Wallace’s excellent blog post, The Incomparable Miriam Matthews, to learn more about Ms. Matthews’ efforts to preserve California African American art and history, and her advocacy work for intellectual freedom.
Alma Reaves Woods - Watts Branch Library (dedicated July 1996)
Alma Reaves Woods was dubbed the “lady who built the library” when the Watts Branch, named in her honor, opened in June 1996. For years she promoted reading in Watts and, according to the Los Angeles Times, lugged library books to children at Nickerson Gardens until she helped convince library officials to send the bookmobile directly to public housing projects. Ms. Woods canvassed her community and attended government meetings to spread the love of language and literacy. Through her efforts, a 1989 bond issue helped fund a new library building that is triple the size of the old Watts branch. When the library was completed, the City Council (including Councilwoman Rita Walters) voted unanimously to name the new Watts Branch after Alma Reaves Woods. Ms. Woods was the emcee on opening day.
Frances Howard Goldwyn - Hollywood Regional Library (dedicated June 1986)
When the Hollywood Branch Library was destroyed by an arson fire in April 1982, the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation donated $3.24 million dollars to rebuild it. As a child, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and his mother, Frances Howard Goldwyn, visited the Hollywood Branch Library in its previous location on Hollywood Boulevard at Ivar. Ms. Howard (1903-1976) was an actress and model before marrying producer Samuel Goldwyn Sr. in 1925. She left acting and began collaborating with Goldwyn’s productions, taking over the supervision of Samuel Goldwyn Productions in 1969. Frances Howard Goldwyn (1903-1976), was an avid reader and library user, and the new library was named in her honor. The Frances Howard Goldwyn - Hollywood Regional Library, designed by Frank Gehry, opened in June 1986.
Jefferson - Vassie D. Wright Memorial Branch Library (dedicated June 1985)
Following an arson fire, the Jefferson Branch Library rose phoenix-like with a new name in 1985. The new name honored Mrs. Vassie D. Wright, a woman who lived near the branch and initiated the first citywide celebration of Negro History Week (now African American History Month).
In February 1945, civic leader Mrs. Vassie D. Wright (1891-1983) started Our Authors Study Club, devoted to the study of Black history and the promotion of African American authors. The group was the Los Angeles chapter of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1915. Dr. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926 to highlight the achievements and contributions of African Americans. Early celebrations in Los Angeles consisted of single events throughout the city hosted by social clubs, churches, and organizations (including Miriam Matthews and the Los Angeles Public Library).
In February 1949, Our Authors Study Club sponsored week-long programming and art exhibits at the Sojourner Truth Home for Negro History Week. The following year Mayor Fletcher Bowron issued a proclamation marking the city-wide observance Negro History Week and recognized the efforts of Mrs. Wright and Our Authors Study Club. The tradition continues today, as the club still works with the Mayor’s office planning programming for Black History Month. Because of her dedication to the promotion of African American history and literature, the Board of Library Commissioners named the Jefferson Branch in honor of Mrs. Vassie D. Wright, a beloved patron of the branch.
North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library (dedicated April 1981)
Once known as the Sidney Lanier Branch, the library on the northwest corner of Magnolia and Tujunga was renamed the North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library in April 1981.
Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to fly solo over the Pacific Ocean, lived near the library on Valley Spring Lane at the time of her disappearance in 1937. Ms. Earhart (1897-1937) was active in local clubs including the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots (she served as their first president). More than thirty years after her disappearance, San Fernando Valley women’s clubs commissioned sculptor Ernest Shelton to create a statue of the inspirational aviatrix. In 1971, the fiberglass statue was placed near the library on the corner. Due to damage from the elements, it was later replaced by a bronze statue (a duplicate of the statue can be seen at the Hollywood Burbank Airport, which Ms. Earhart used frequently).
In 1981, a library patron suggested naming the library after Ms. Earhart since she was a local resident “known for her spirit of adventure and historic contribution to aviation.” The library polled library patrons and the local community on the name change, which was favored two to one. With the additional support of the North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Ninety-Nines, and the North Hollywood Zonta Club, the Library Board of Commissioners voted for the name change. A formal dedication took place on April 21, 1988, as part of Los Angeles’ Bicentennial celebrations.
Exposition Park - Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library (originally dedicated October 1975, new location 2008)
In 1973, community members met with the Library Board of Commissioners and suggested renaming the University Branch Library in honor of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an educator, philanthropist, and civil rights, activist. In 1904, through faith, determination, and an initial investment of $1.50, she built a school for young African American women from the ground up. Due to her resilience, that school is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. This is merely one of the amazing accomplishments of the woman who became an advisor to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Harry S. Truman.
Dr. Bethune inspired many, including artist Charles White, who painted the beautiful mural that appears over the circulation desk at the Exposition Park - Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library. Mr. White, who spent a great deal of time in libraries as a child, often spoke of his respect for her commitment to “uplifting people through learning.”
Will & Ariel Durant Branch (originally dedicated January 1988, new location 2004)
Once known as the West Hollywood Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, a name change was needed when the Los Angeles County library system renamed their San Vicente Library following the incorporation of the city of West Hollywood. The new County library name? The West Hollywood Library. So, in 1987, the Los Angeles Public Library held a contest to pick a new name for their West Hollywood Library. In November, the Library Board of Commissioners announced the library would become the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library.
Ariel Durant (1898-1981) emigrated to the United States from Russia as a toddler. Her family lived in New York, which is where she met Will Durant and married him at the age of 15. Read more about their love story here. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1943, settling in the Hollywood Hills. Authors and historians Will & Ariel Durant are best known for their 11-volume book series Story of Civilization, one volume of which won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. In 1965, Ariel Durant was voted Woman of the Year (for Literature) by the Los Angeles Times. The Times profile on her at the time described her as “sprightly, enthusiastic, even a bit mischievous.” The Durants died less than two weeks apart in 1981.
Each of these women deserves more than a short paragraph to describe their influence on their communities and the world. Visit the library and TESSA to find resources to learn more.
Access digital archives of Los Angeles African American newspapers the California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel, plus other area newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, for free with your library card.