Vivian G. Harsh: “the historian who never wrote”

Vivian G. Harsh
Vivian Gordon Harsh, librarian Chicago Public Library, George Cleveland Hall Branch. // Source: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature

Vivian G. Harsh (1890-1960) was an African American librarian who believed that librarians shouldered a “deep responsibility for intellectual and civic leadership in their communities” (Anne Meis Knupfer, 61). In 1924, Vivian Gordon Harsh became the first black librarian to work for the Chicago Public Library system. In 1932, George Cleveland Hall Library opened its doors and was the first black library in Chicago’s Bronzeville community.

As its first director, Harsh’s vision for the library was to become a community gathering space and to provide educational outreach. Harsh would travel throughout the south every summer in search of books written by or about black people with a mission to build the library’s repository. She amassed the “Special Negro Collection,” which gathered the attention from many readers and researchers. As director, and with the assistance of Charlemae Rollins, Harsh organized several community programs including art exhibits, literary forums, black history clubs, drama clubs, a senior citizen’s group, and debates to name a few. Harsh served as director until her retirement in 1958. Under her leadership, the George Cleveland Hall Library became an intellectual and cultural meeting space for African Americans and the Bronzeville community throughout the 1930s and 1940s.


Knupfer, Anne Meis. The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activisim. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.


Diggin’ Into the Past: Black Librarians, Archivists, and Museum Professionals


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