Alma Powell Branch History
An Anonymous Gift
In May of 1968 an anonymous gift of $10,000 was received by the Kalamazoo Board of Education for the purpose of establishing a library in the poorest section of town. At that meeting, the board acknowledged the gift but decided not to accept it immediately. Instead the board asked the Friends of the Library to study the proposed facility and make recommendations for its implementation.
The donor, later revealed to be Mrs. Dorothy Dalton, made certain stipulations about the new library. In addition to its location in a poor neighborhood, she asked that it be staffed by accredited library personnel who would select books for the facility in consultation with leaders and teachers of the Northside community. She also wanted a small stage for rehearsal purposes, since it was her hope that the library would work with such groups as creative writers, drama groups, art, music and dancing groups.
Library services were first offered on the Northside in 1915 at the North West (later Westnedge) Street School. A few years later it was moved to the new Lincoln School. What became of that small library is not clear, but it was no longer operating in March of 1969 when the Board of Education approved the establishment of a small library room at Lincoln School, to be funded by the Friends of the Library and the Public Museum. It would be staffed by volunteers, offer a place to study, and provide a collection on black culture and other books for the people of the Northside. It would be a regular part of the Kalamazoo Public Library system, and was named by the Friends and the Board of Education in memory of Mrs. Alma Powell. Mrs Powell joined the KPL staff in 1946 and worked at Lincoln School and the Eastwood Branch Library until her death in 1967. She was a noted storyteller and enjoyed sharing her rich African heritage and love for books with children.
Alma Powell Room
The new room held its first open house on October 12, 1969, the 97th anniversary of the library system. The branch was first directed by the distinguished librarian and researcher Mary Mace Spradling, who took a leave from her duties as the head of the young adult department at the main library. Featured services of the new facility included a Saturday story hour for children, a seminar for young adults, and a coffee hour for adults.
A New Location
As a new location was being planned for the branch, Mrs. Roberta Cheney was appointed head of the Alma Powell Library in July of 1971. She had been director of the Cass County Library and was well prepared for the work ahead.
Mrs. Dalton’s vision came to fruition when the new Alma Powell Branch was opened in December 1971 in a remodeled building that had formerly housed the Van Avery Drug Store. It seems appropriate that a building that was the focus of a civil rights action should become the branch’s first home of its own. Earlier, residents of the Northside had protested and picketed the drugstore for its refusal to hire employees from the clientele that it served. This eventually led to its closing. After standing vacant for a short time, it was reborn as the Alma Powell Branch.
Mrs. Cheney said of the new building, “The building looks great. It’s wide open—with windows on two sides. It is full of bright off white and gold with accents of bright oranges, saffron, deep purple and red. Draw drapes of a marvelous Finnish casement cloth add the right touch of luxury. The building is truly the only bright spot in the whole drab Northside community.” Her philosophy was simple. She wanted the library “to be a complete community service. A focal point for the Northside community. I would like to see how I can enhance the learning process of black youngsters, and show them how they can relate themselves to the things in the world. A library can help a child find himself.” Her success in achieving her goals resulted in her being named “Michigan Librarian of the Year” in 1972, for her “outstanding contribution to effective and improved library service to a community.”
“Books and Basketball?”
Attendance was not what had been hoped for at that location, so in January of 1985, the branch moved into the new Douglass Community Association building on West Paterson Street in a more centralized residential location. At the opening, Dr. Benjamin Wilson was quoted by the Kalamazoo Gazette, “A library under the same roof as a gymnasium? Books and basketball? A sneaky way to give kids the message that there’s more to life than a slam dunk … doing a slam dunk is beautiful, but so is sitting down and reading a book.”
After a decade of hard use, the branch was renovated in 1996. The completely re-configured interior now includes youth, adult audiovisual, and technology areas. Five new display cases along the east-west corridor wall feature African-American artifacts. A traditional Kente cloth hanging inspired the richly colored floor, ceiling and wall finishes and built-in furnishings. Descended from generations of weavers, artist Gilbert Bobbo created the narrow strips at his studio in Ghana, where weaving is a noble vocation. Each motif represents a song, legend, or proverb. Michael Hayden’s holographic film was applied to the barrel-vaulted skylight and now dapples the library with color. Any afternoon finds the branch a-buzz with children working on computers, finding books to read, and getting help with homework. Roberta Cheney’s belief that a library can help a child find himself is clearly realized at the Alma Powell Branch.