There are hundreds of notable African American women librarians in the nation’s history, including Jean Blackwell Hutson, Regina Anderson Andrews, Dorothy Porter Wesley and Clara Stanton Jones, all of whom have been featured in this column. Only recently did I discover Virginia Proctor Powell Florence, the first Black woman in the country to earn a degree in library science. Such success also made her the second Black American, after Edward Christopher Williams, trained in librarianship.
Born Oct.1, 1897 in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, Virginia was the only child of Socrates Edward and Caroline Elizabeth (Proctor) Powell. When both parents died in 1913 she moved to Pittsburgh to live with her aunt. Two years later she graduated from the city’s Fifth Avenue High School. As her mother had done, Virginia enrolled at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1919 and moved back to Pittsburgh where she worked as a beautician in her aunt’s salon after she was unable to get a job teaching.
It should be noted that before returning to Pittsburgh there was a temporary stay in St. Paul, Minnesota where she worked as a secretary, but neither the place nor the job held any allure for her.
Eventually her passion for children and books won over and she decided to pursue a career as a librarian. In this endeavor she was encouraged and advised by Charles Wilbur Florence, her future husband.
In this pursuit there were two major obstacles to overcome—first gaining admission to one of the white universities and then getting hired as a librarian, a profession all but locked for Black aspirants. Undaunted, Virginia forged ahead. Her academic achievements at Oberlin were hard to ignore and in 1922 she was accepted into the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library School, though there remained the hurdle of racism and discrimination. Despite the restrictions imposed on her—not to interact directly with patrons—within a year she had her Bachelor of Library Science degree.
Among the interests she developed while in Oberlin were her participation in campus literary clubs and working in community groups, particularly where she could help children learn to read and cultivate a love of books. But for all her love and devotion to books and children, there was no room for her in the Pittsburgh school system. The school system was integrated for its students, but not for Virginia and other Black teachers. Unable to enter the school system as a teacher, she returned to her aunt’s beauty salon.
Finally, after sending her resume to a countless number of libraries, she was hired at the New York Public Library where she was employed until 1927. There yet another hurdle had to be overcome: the New York High School librarian’s exam. She accomplished this with flying colors and was soon appointed librarian at Seward Park High School in Brooklyn.
After a long courtship, Virginia married Charles Wilbur Florence on July 18, 1931. He was an equally accomplished educator with degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and two years at Harvard where before completing his doctorate he was chosen to become the president of Lincoln University of Missouri in Jefferson City. Their marriage and her husband’s new job meant she had to set aside her work as a librarian and perform duties as the college’s First Lady.
When her husband was offered another opportunity in Richmond, Virginia and with no work possibilities there, she found employment in the nation’s capital. At last she was back on her chosen path as a librarian at Cordoza High School, and she remained there until 1945. But health issues soon prevailed forcing her to relocate back to Richmond. With her health improved, Virginia resumed working as a librarian, eventually in the school system at Maggie L. Walker Senior High School until her retirement in 1965.
Among her honors during a long tenure as a librarian was one from the University of Pittsburgh. Also, the American Library Association saluted her by including her on a list of the “100 most important leaders we had in the 20th century.” They ranked her at number 34. Later, posthumously, in 2004, a plaque honoring her was mounted in the lobby of the city’s Information Services Building.
No longer consumed with her work in the library, she joined her husband in their commitment to social justice and racial equality. “My husband and I, being Negroes, are especially interested in Civil Rights and better race relations,” she wrote in 1968 in her class reunion questionnaire. “We work with our church, YWCA, and the Richmond Crusade for Voters toward that end.”
Virginia died in 1991 in Richmond at the age of 93.