The African American Library at the Gregory School

Oral history librarian Adrienne A. Cain accepted the 2014 Barnes Award on behalf of The African American Library at the Gregory School, a unit of the Houston Public Library. The nomination narrative, reproduced below, describes the historic context and current scope of The African American Library's oral history collection.

Post the Emancipation Proclamation, many freed slaves settled in the swampy area of Houston known as “Freedmen’s Town” in Houston’s Fourth Ward. In 1870, The Gregory Institute was formed in Freedman’s Town as the first school for African Americans in the city and later became the Edgar M. Gregory Elementary School when it was inducted into the Houston ISD in 1876. The freed slaves in this community built their own homes, churches, and started their own business. It is reported that in the year 1915, there were of 400 businesses in the area. The area thrived for decades until the incorporation of major highways that dissected it from the up and coming downtown area. Many businesses relocated and many people moved from the area due to rising costs and the increase of opportunity in other areas of the city. The school remained open until the mid-eighties.

Over 20 years later, the City of Houston and Houston Public Library System acquired and restored the 1926 building which now is The African American Library at the Gregory School. This facility serves as resource and repository to preserve, promote and celebrate the history of African Americans in Houston. Since there are very few documents, photographs and other memorabilia to attest the experience at the Gregory School, most of the history has been revealed and documented in the form of oral history. The oral history program at the African American Library at the Gregory School was formulated as a remembrance of the historic—yet disappearing—Fourth Ward and The Gregory School as well as a look at African American history in Houston.

The African American Library at the Gregory School’s oral history collection includes oral history recordings that highlight the activities, faculty, and structure of the school as well as a glimpse of the everyday lives of African Americans in the community of Fourth Ward and include alumni, former teachers, former and current residents of Fourth Ward, and prominent African American politicians, business owners and community activists who have had a profound impact or recollection of African American life in Houston. Through these interviews, the viewers will receive a firsthand experience of African American life in Houston and in the Fourth Ward community. After a brief hiatus, the collection now has 73 recorded oral histories, 35 of which are available at The African American Library at the Gregory School's website and on the Houston Area Digital Archive’s website. The oral histories are recorded, produced, edited, transcribed, and stored at The African American Library at the Gregory School by their Oral History Librarian.

The oral histories are viewed and used by students (K-12 and college students), local and statewide historians, and people who are just interested in learning more about Houston’s African American History. The library also works closely with local universities and community colleges for to be a resource for students doing research on Houston’s history. The oral histories provide a perspective of history that cannot be found in a textbook and is a primary, unfiltered resource for researchers.

The African American Library at the Gregory School not only houses oral histories, it also houses an archive that contains photographs, manuscripts, and other items that represent different facets of Houston’s African American history. The items housed in our collection are donated from members of the community who we have formed relationships with in an effort to preserve and promote this history. The library also hosts monthly programs that explore history, inform patrons on how to preserve history (including oral history methodologies for home use), and even recently we hosted Dr. Michael Frisch, well-known oral historian from New York. The library also has galleries that depict the history of Freedman’s Town, African American life in Fourth Ward and a gallery that changes on a quarterly basis and features art and memorabilia of African Americans in Houston. With all this said, The African American Library at the Gregory School is much more than a library; all of these components come together to create a cultural learning experience for patrons.