Past Times

Mollie Lee was the force behind the Harrison Library

Mollie Lee established the Richard B. Harrison Library to serve the needs of the black community in Raleigh.
Mollie Lee established the Richard B. Harrison Library to serve the needs of the black community in Raleigh. N&O File Photo

“I don’t know of anything that can help anyone grow more than working in a library.” That statement summed up the work of Mollie Huston Lee, founder of Raleigh’s Richard B. Harrison Library. Just before her retirement in 1972, Lee was the subject of a profile by writer Mary Day Mordecai.

To the surprise of some of her friends, the building will probably remain standing. But the presence of the now gray-haired but still exuberant woman who started it all will be missed.

In 1935 Raleigh had no library for blacks. Olivia Raney, the city’s public library, prohibited them, and blacks were allowed only in some small sections of the State Library.

Mollie Lee, with an undergraduate degree from Howard University and the first degree in library science ever awarded a black at Columbia University, was concerned about “her people.” She gave up her job as librarian at Shaw University. At a salary of $60 a month, she struggled with the reluctant community to establish a library for blacks.

The job meant daily commuting from Durham, where she lived with her husband, the late Dr. James Lee, former chairman of the biology department of North Carolina Central University.…

It was depression time, and contributions came in small amounts. But they were enough to purchase a small storefront room on East Hargett Street, in the center of the black business section.

Stocked with home-made tables and 890 books, the little library opened its doors. But there was no business. The black community, unaccustomed to the service, was reluctant to use it.

So Mrs. Lee solicited business up and down the streets of Raleigh. With a large market basket full of books, she did some door-to-door selling.

The purse strings at first were tight, but the library’s selection of books grew almost as fast as its patronage. Determined that the library should have the necessary materials, she purchased as many as possible. Rare book sales were her passion, and it was there that the library’s two valuable collections of cookbooks and black literature started.…

Within a few years books filled the back room and were stacked on the floor. The infant library had outgrown its home on Hargett Street. It needed a larger house, but funds were limited.

Never one to be deterred by a lack of funds, Mrs. Lee depended on a “little faith.” One day she went out and took an option on a Blount Street building that she thought would be suitable. A surprised board of directors decided to support her, and the money was raised to pay for it.

Veteran of many such leaps of faith, Mrs. Lee insisted, “I think people hold back too much and say ‘We don’t have any money.’ There are lots of things that can be done without funds.” The history of the Harrison library attests to it.

In the days before black literature was widely accepted, black writers used the crowds at Harrison library as a sounding board. They were rarely paid for their services. Among them have been Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps and Jesse Jackson.…

Mrs. Lee, a small staff and their books were at home in the renovated two-story house on Blount Street for about 15 years. But their ultimate goal was a building designed specifically for their purposes. In 1960 the future of their dream was decided in a bond issue before the voters of Wake County.

At 4:30 in the afternoon of voting day, it looked as though the bond would not pass. So Mrs. Lee and a co-worker set out on foot to do some last-minute campaigning before the polls closed at 6:30. It passed by a small margin, and the black library was on the way to a new building.…

Through the years, Mrs. Lee acquired a few more staff members.… One of them, Miss Maude Young, who retired in 1968, was with the library almost from the beginning.…

“Mrs. Lee always expected us to help her out in her goal, and what she asked was so reasonable that we did. … Raleigh should never forget her, the black people especially,” she said. The N&O June 2, 1972

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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