Regina Anderson Andrews: Harlem Renaissance Librarian

By Ethelene Whitmire. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014. 168 pp. $55.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-252-03850-1.

The story of the Harlem Renaissance is replete with many iconic literary, artistic, and intellectual figures such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Jean Toomer, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ethel Waters, Walter White, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. There were many lesser known individuals, however, that were part and parcel of those halcyon days in the Harlem of the 1920s and Ethelene Whitmire has made it her task to shed light on one such person: librarian, Regina Anderson Andrews (1901-1993). Whitmire, an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has written an accessible and scholarly biography of an African American pioneer at the New York Public Library (of which Chapter 6 was originally published in Libraries & the Cultural Record, Volume 42, Number 4, 2007) who fought for professional recognition as a woman of color while also contributing artistically to the Harlem Renaissance.

Regina Anderson Andrews: Harlem Renaissance Librarian is written, posits Whitmire, within a “black feminist theory perspective” that resists “racial stereotyping” and challenges “expected gender roles” (2). The library scholar found the right subject. Regina Andrews’ early years as a child of mixed-heritage in a small predominantly white Illinois university town set the tone for her lifelong belief in interracial relationships at the personal, professional and civic organizational levels. The future librarian’s mixed ethnic heritage and her middle class background (her father was a prominent lawyer) gave her the confidence to battle racism throughout her adult life, claims the author. The author traces the young woman’s first library job (a Caucasian male dominated profession at the time) to the Wilberforce University library, quickly moving on to work at the Chicago Public Library (CPL). Uniquely, Whitmire asserts, the CPL did not limit the number of African Americans that attained jobs as the result of a relatively color-blind civil service examination, declares Whitmire; indeed, the city of Chicago had fewer African American residents but still had more African Americans working in its library system in stark contrast to the New York Public Library.

In 1923, informs Whitmire, a restless Andrews moved to New York City and found a job at the New York Public Library (NYPL) at its 135th Street Branch in Harlem where even as an entry level employee the young African American took the initiative to “set aside a small work area for African American artists” such as Langston Hughes, Eric Walrond, and Claude McKay (37). The young librarian also threw herself into the community by organizing the North Harlem Community Forum which brought a variety of lecturers to the NYPL such as Margaret Sanger and George Schuyler. Andrews would also “bring home seven or eight books a[t] night” of Harlem Renaissance authors “to give some sort of short review” for library customers. In spite of her meager library salary in the 1920s Andrews, avers the author, quickly became a literary doyenne with “guests at 580 [her apartment on famed Sugar Hill]” becoming “a who’s who of the Harlem Renaissance....” (53).

The energetic young librarian was also highly creative. According to Whitmire, Andrews co-founded and became executive director of the interracial Harlem Experimental Theatre. Evidence is provided that “Andrews was instrumental in helping to nurture the Little Negro Theatre Movement in Harlem” (74). The young theatre director had among her board members, African American intellectuals W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke; Jessie Fauset, and NAACP co-founder, Mary White Ovington (who was Caucasian). Andrews’ plays did not veer far from the dominant themes of the 1920s, however, touching on “key tropes” of the African American experience – “lynching and passing” (70). And in keeping with her mixed heritage and personal philosophy, Andrews insisted that plays, playwrights and actors be multi-ethnic in character. She also acted in her plays.

Implicit throughout this volume is Regina Anderson Andrews’ membership in Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth,” an elite group that consisted of highly educated African Americans of mixed heritage. The active librarian was involved in a literary milieu in Harlem that benefited the Talented Tenth while most African Americans in the community struggled to make a living. Whitemire mentions library lectures and presentations by prominent individuals – both African American and Caucasian – in order to educate her library users, some of whom came from working class and immigrant backgrounds. Yet, this reviewer wished that this biography of a librarian would have provided more direct evidence that Andrews’ work also benefited her working class customers (female and male) and not only the professional challenges and theatrical efforts of what was arguably an ambitious, intelligent, and driven woman. Were there friendships and close working relationships between this librarian and many of her working class patrons? Between her membership among the Harlem elite and her husband Bill’s being a prominent Harlem lawyer, Andrews certainly had the help of powerful civil rights figures to work with her in her fight against racism – a dynamic that would have been unlikely if she worked a blue collar job.

Nevertheless, Whitmire demonstrates that there was systemic racism within the NYPL that Andrews battled despite the great contributions of both her outreach and extracurricular community work to various branches throughout her career. Initially, 135th branch librarian Ernestine Rose (who was Caucasian) believed that a multi-ethnic staff provided valuable service regardless of the community’s composition but this relationship deteriorated when Andrews elicited the assistance of civil rights heavyweights W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter White in order to attain the promotion she deserved. NAACP secretary Walter White boycotted the NYPL “until it was assumed that Regina would be promoted commensurate with her ability, experience and education” (90). Intellectual giant and African American activist W.E.B. Du Bois also added his voice in support of the librarian: “I have known [Andrews for] over twenty years.... I cannot understand why her salary should be the lowest paid of any branch librarian...” This political pressure worked: in 1930, the African American librarian had a pay increase from $155 to $165 per month; in 1938, Andrews became the first African American branch manager at NYPL.

Andrews’ extracurricular activities went beyond the arts, however; the librarian was a board member of the National Urban League (NUL). Asserts Whitmire, the NYPL branch manager also began to show an internationalist ethos: she became a United Nations observer for both the NUL and the National Council of Women of the United States. Foreign trips to Africa, Asia, and Europe opened her worldview during the 1940s to the 1960s both as a librarian and as a feminist that believed in inter-racial and international cooperation. In addition to visiting libraries Andrews also focused on meeting women and learning “about the social, educational, and economic issues” that impacted their lives. These international trips, however, served to earn the ire of Andrews’ superiors at NYPL, declares Whitmire. In the 1960s an NYPL administrator tartly wrote: “While I am happy for you at the invitation [for an international trip] I am sure you realize that I cannot welcome the implications it has for the Library.... In view of the opportunities involved you may wish to accelerate your retirement date...” (108). Shortly thereafter, Andrews retired at the age of sixty-five.

A memoir of a librarian is rare due to the lack of interest outside the library profession itself as well as the paucity of personal documentation deposited by librarians, generally. Whitmire has carefully woven the personal with the professional, a challenging balancing act: Regina Anderson Andrews was an energetic and driven librarian who was equally creative within the thriving arts community that was the Harlem Renaissance. All the same, greater analysis of her subject was expected. Were the foreign trips undertaken by Andrews professionally justifiable and if so, how? Was she criticized solely by her Caucasian superiors or were colleagues and subordinates (both Caucasian and African American, female and male) just as censorious? That said, this biography reminds us that librarians can have a positive impact on their community while leading meaningful very human lives. In the final analysis, this reviewer is pleased that Ethelene Whitmire has introduced the library world to Regina Anderson Andrews.


Kam W. Teo