The Dunbar Branch: Dallas’ First Library for the African-American Community, 1931-1959

by Paula Bosse

dunbar_hazel_dpl-bkThe Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch of the Dallas Public Library

by Paula Bosse

The Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch of the Dallas Public Library was the first library in Dallas to welcome and serve the African-American community. It opened in June of 1931 at the northwest corner of Thomas and Worthington in what was then the predominantly black neighborhood of “North Dallas” (the area now known as Uptown), a thriving business and residential neighborhood which was home to everyone from the city’s black professionals who lived in large, lovely gingerbread-style houses, to middle- and lower-class black families who lived in more modest homes.

This was a time when almost every aspect of life was racially segregated — the grand downtown Carnegie Library was expressly off-limits to non-whites, and few of the black schools had any sort of functioning library. It was a long, hard bureaucratic battle of petitioning the city, the state, the Carnegie corporation … anyone … for a library that the city’s woefully underserved black citizens could call their own. It took years until the powers-that-be gave the go-ahead to finally build one. The building was designed by Dallas architects Ralph Bryan and Walter Sharp. Below is their drawing of the proposed library and an explanation of its style.

dunbar_drawing_dmn_081530

dunbar_drawing_dmn_081530-captionDMN, Aug. 15, 1930 (click for larger images)

The completely charming one-story, brick and reinforced concrete building was very, very popular and was a source of pride in the community. And it was beautiful!

dunbar_ref-and-reading-rm_hazelThe reference and reading room.

dunbar-lib_hazel_062931-photoOpening-day crowds, June, 1931

dunbar-children_hazel_1949Children in costumes to celebrate National Book Week, Nov. 1949

In the late 1940s, construction began on Central Expressway. Unfortunately, this much-needed highway cut right through the North Dallas/State-Thomas/Freedman’s Town area and was a devastating blow to the African-American community who lived, worked, and shopped there. That and other economic forces led to the eventual dispersal of the area’s black population to other parts of the city. By the 1950s, the library had lost many of its core patrons, and in 1959 the Dunbar Branch closed. At some point that beautiful building, located just a few blocks south of McKinney Avenue, was demolished. The historic State-Thomas area has now been almost completely obliterated as “Uptown” has taken over. And another part of the city’s history has been lost.

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Unless otherwise noted, photos are from the book Dallas Public Library, Celebrating a Century of Service 1901-2001 by Michael V. Hazel (Denton: University of North Texas Press/Friends of the Dallas Public Library, 2001); photos presumably from The Texas/Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library.

Hazel’s chapter on the Dunbar Branch is well worth reading. Not only is it interesting (and kind of shocking to learn the lengths that a community had to go to simply to have access to the library system which their tax dollars were contributing to), but there are also more wonderful photos like the ones above. The Dunbar chapter is accessible here.

An article from The Dallas Morning News (May 15, 1959) on the decision to close the branch and sell the building is here.

The library’s architects, Ralph Bryan and Walter Sharp also designed the nearby Moorland YMCA — it was built at almost the same time as the library, and, hallelujah, the building still stands, currently housing the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. A few years later Sharp designed Lincoln High School in South Dallas. All in all, these architects were responsible for three extremely important buildings that served Dallas’ black citizens.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was one of the first nationally prominent African-American writers; more about him, here.

There is another Dunbar branch library in the Dallas Public Library system — the website for the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Kiest Branch Library is here.

Click photos for larger images.

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Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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