Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Allegra Westbrooks

Postcard of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. This building was razed to make way for the current library building. It was in this building that I first met Allegra Westbrooks.

It is sometimes startling when your past intrudes on the present in unexpected ways. Such was the case for me when I came across a recent blog post referencing a newspaper article about Allegra Westbrooks, the first African American public library supervisor in North Carolina. I had the privilege to work with Allegra on two occasions at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklengburg County (PLCMC).
When I got out of library school at the University of Illinois in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam conflict, my student deferment from the draft terminated and I knew it was only a matter of time until Uncle Sam caught up with me. So rather than take one of the numerous job opportunities which were available to library school graduates in 1967, I decided to go back to North Carolina where my parents were living to wait for the inevitable. After a couple of months of working for my father, I started approaching various public libraries in North Carolina to see if they would hire me temporarily. The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburgh County (PLCMC) was willing to take a chance on me and I began work in the Reference Department of the Main Library in April of 1967. This is when I first came in contact with Allegra Westbrooks who, at the time, was head of the Acquisitions Department of the library. After a couple of months on the reference desk, I was given an unexpected opportunity to become head of one of the library's branch libraries. In that capacity, I attended monthly book selection meetings which were coordinated by Allegra.
After six months working at the library and after marriage to my wife Kathy, I did indeed get drafted and served 19 months in the Army including 13 months in Vietnam. When I got out of the Army, I became director of a regional library in Tennessee. Less than two years later, Hoyt Galvin, director of PLCMC retired and Arial Stephens, the associate director, became director. In one of those unusual turns of fate and opportunity, Arial offered me the position of associate director of the PLCMC when I was just 27 years old. Allegra was one of four department heads, all at least 20 years my senior, who had to put up with a young whipper snapper (some would say smart ass) who was eager for change. Allegra, as always, was a class act and was wonderfully tolerant of my miscues. In a major reorganization of the library, she became Assistant Director for Extension Services. I will always value my association with her and the other fine folks at PLCMC.
There is a great web history of the PLCMC and one section is devoted to Allegra's time at the Brevard Street Branch Library. Also on the web are a video segment with Allegra and a StoryCorps oral interview conducted by her niece.

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