Indy’s first Black librarian: Recovering the history of our struggle

Photo: Stephen Lane, a former Indianapolis Public Library worker and current member of the Board of Trustees, delivers a presentation on the history of racism in our library system. Credit: Mahasin Ameen


For many, the struggle to regain public control over the Indianapolis Public Library system and root out the now well-known corruption at the heart of the Board originated in late 2022 when, after a nation-wide search for a new CEO, the Board extended the offer to Gabriel Morley instead of then-interim CEO Nichelle M. Hayes just days after Morley gave an embarrassingly incoherent public presentation while Hayes articulated a clear and popular path forward. The community immediately organized a demonstration, initiated a popular petition, and engaged in months of activity in a struggle that continues today.

For others, the fight to make our library truly public started at the May 24 2021 Board of Trustees meeting where Bree Flannelly, a Black woman and librarian started addressing the meeting about the systemic racism, white supremacy, and general bigotry that pervades the Library system. Board President Jose Salinas silenced Flannelly’s microphone. Salinas was given advance notice of Flannelly’s remarks by then-CEO Jackie Nytes. Nytes and Salinas had good reasons for silencing Flannelly: Under their leadership, “the library is run like a plantation,” as Board member Dr. Patricia Payne said.

Throughout the summer, library workers and their union, patrons, and community organizations like the Indianapolis Liberation Center led a struggle to remove Nytes from her position. After months of refusing to consider resigning, Nytes admitted defeat in a historic people’s victory on August 20, not even three months later.

The 20th-century struggle against racism in our library system

Of course, the roots of the racism and corruption that currently characterize the Indianapolis Public Library system are, like all institutions in the U.S., rooted in the very foundations of the state.

On the 150th anniversary of the Library’s foundation, former library worker and current Board of Trustees member Stephen Lane linked these more recent struggles to those a century prior. In a presentation delivered at the Central Library’s Indianapolis Special Collections reading room, Lane discussed Indiana’s first Black librarian: Lillian Sunshine Childress Haydon Hall.

After a warm welcome by special collection librarian Montoya Barker, who does monthly programming on local historical topics, Lane began discussing the reason why he was presenting:

We highlight the work that our Center’s members are involved in to show that we are invested and dedicated to the education and engagement of the Indianapolis community. We are not disconnected from our history, yet carry it forward and our action or inaction today help shape it for future generations to come. Our history can be characterized as a balance of forces and the fact that workers are emerging as historians that highlight the trailblazing workers who came before us and push them into the spotlight to show that history isn’t only made up of the people who had money like Andrew Carnegie in his “philanthropic” efforts to build libraries across the country, when the workers inside those Carnegie buildings are who breathed life into the space, or in other words, who did the work.

Indy’s first Black librarian

In 1921, IndyPL hired its first Black librarian to manage a Black branch, named after the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, located inside IPS Frederick Douglass School #26 on 16th St and Columbia Ave (Now the Oaks Academy Middle School). Hall moved from Evansville where she first worked as a librarian in the Cherry Street Branch that provided service to the Black community in Evansville. Hall would host an annual Christmas party at the Cherry St. Branch as well as start literacy clubs for children.

Hall moved to Indianapolis at a time when the city government was experiencing a takeover by the KKK supported by a right-wing faction of the ruling class. The KKK members were well-funded and supported to get positions on boards and even become the mayor of Indianapolis. The Klan had the explicit plan to segregate the schools and keep white children and Black children separated into their own schools and libraries.

Lane speculated that the Indianapolis Public Library did not fully segregate because the Library leadership was run by Quakers who pushed back against the school board of commissioners yet, complied in providing services to the Black branches with Black staff.

Looking to Hall for inspiration and validation

When Crispus Attucks High School opened in 1927, Hall moved into the branch library created there as all of the Black student population now attended one centralized high school built for them. Attucks High School was built to fail, yet many of the students succeeded and excelled in their studies because many of the teachers held PhD- and Masters-level degrees. Hall certainly had an influence on the success of Attucks High School and its student populace. She started a special collections in the hopes to preserve Black history, sadly that collection is missing to this day. Hall was a visionary leader who mentored many young Black library workers, many of whom went on to become librarians.

Hall faced many challenges throughout her career because of the same systemic racism we’re seeing lay out today. Yet she also saw the real change that is possible if we face these challenges together.

We should look to Hall for inspiration. Even living through the devastation of an explicit apartheid-regime, Hall educated herself and her community.


Thanks to the hard historical work of Indiana State Librarian Michele Fenton, who took the time to research the life of Hall and her legacy, we’re better able to remember her and look to her for inspiration. As Fenton told IndyStar, “I was so inspired by her because look at the time period and look at what she accomplished when women, women of color, had barely any rights.

In 2014, Fenton published an article about Hall in the Indiana Libraries journal of the Indiana Library Federation, writing: “I think about what she had to go through. She faced so many challenges because it can be hard, even today, for library branches in neighborhoods of color, to get the materials they need.”

The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation announced a scholarship in Hall’s name that will go towards paying tuition costs for marginalized people to obtain their Masters in Library and Information Science. This is a small piece of evidence that progress always wins over reactionary forces. The counter revolution sows the seeds for the next revolution.

When the Indianapolis Public Library truly reflects the community it serves, then the seeds Hall planted over 100 years ago will begin to bear fruit.