Pearl Thompson was a student at Shaw University in 1942 when she was told she couldn’t check out a book from Raleigh’s public library because she was black.
She was sent to the library’s basement, where she had to wait for a staff member to bring her the book she was assigned to read for a history class. Blacks weren’t issued library cards, so she had to stay in the basement to read it.
Seventy-three years later, Thompson finally has her library card.
She entered the Cameron Village Regional Library on Thursday, aided by a walker, to attend a ceremony in her honor.
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“It’s going to take me awhile to get to you,” Thompson told the library staff, “but it’s been a long journey anyway.”
Thompson, 92, grew up on Lenoir Street in Raleigh, the oldest of four children. She said her father was the first African-American doorman at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel downtown.
When her father died of pneumonia, Thompson said, her mother started working to support the family and pay her children’s college tuition.
Thompson can’t remember which book she was assigned to read for that class. But Shaw didn’t have it, so she went to the Olivia Raney Library, although she knew it was only for whites.
“I expected to go in and get a book,” she said.
The Olivia Raney Library was Raleigh’s first public library. A separate library was established in 1935 on Hargett Street to serve blacks. That library eventually became the Richard B. Harrison Library on New Bern Avenue, said librarian Wanda Cox-Bailey.
The Harrison library merged with the white libraries in the 1960s, Cox-Bailey said.
After she graduated from Shaw, Thompson taught in Raleigh’s segregated black schools for 12 years. Then she moved to Ohio with her husband.
Thompson now lives in an assisted-living facility in Cincinnati. Her daughter, Deborah Thompson, said her mother has kidney disease and heart problems.
Thompson made a wish list of things she wants to do. On that list: coming home to North Carolina for a visit.
And getting the library card she was denied so many years ago.
She didn’t want people to make a big fuss over her Thursday. She became emotional as she recounted her experience as a young college student.
As a teacher, Thompson said, she was determined to give black children every opportunity to read. She wasn’t afraid to ask for what she needed to make that happen.
When a school principal in Raleigh said they were out of money, Thompson recalled, she went to the superintendent to ask for more.
A big truck showed up at the school, packed with paper, pencils, chalk, new desks and so much more, she said.
Later, Thompson traveled around to the city’s African-American schools to help students. If there was no classroom space for her, she’d set up shop wherever she could.
“I tried to expose them to everything I knew,” Thompson said of her students.
Ann Burlingame, deputy director of Wake County Public Libraries, said she was thrilled when Deborah Thompson reached out about getting a library card for her mother.
“I just feel like this woman was denied access to a library and a book,” Burlingame said. “I just wanted the opportunity to rectify that, not just for her but for us as the library system.”
Deborah Thompson said her mother loves to learn.
“That’s the legacy that she leaves,” she said.
Pearl Thompson could have spent the past seven decades being angry about what happened to her at the Olivia Raney Library, which now serves as a local history library.
But that’s not her style.
“I don’t hold any kind of hate in my heart, because that doesn’t do it,” she said. “That doesn’t get you there.”
More words of wisdom from Pearl Thompson
Advice for young people:
▪ “They have the responsibility to help make the change.”
▪ “You’ve got to love that person who hates you so bad.”
▪ “Out of darkness is going to come light, and you’ve got to believe that.”
▪ “All these things I’ve seen, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But you’ve got to do your part.”
▪ “We’ve got to teach our children that they are somebody, and God created them in his image.”
▪ “Here is what I say to them: It’s not going to be easy. (God) didn’t promise it was going to be easy.”
On social unrest in the United States:
▪ “You think you’ve come so far, and then you see your world being turned upside down. And you wonder why it’s happening.”
▪ “It’s almost like I went back in time and said, ‘This can’t be.’”
▪ “It’s not a selfish thing. It’s what’s rightfully mine.”
▪ “I respect your right to be who you are and what you do. Give me the same.”