Augusta Baker - the Lady, the Legend, the Librarian
A brief biography of Augusta Baker, as illustrated by sock puppets.
This video was created for a presentation to my Civil Rights Movements in America history class at Mills College.
Written and Directed by Christie Roberts
Camera Work: Christie and Carolyn Roberts
Narrator Puppet: Christie Roberts
Augusta Baker and other Supporting Puppets: Carolyn Roberts
Tags: Historical Analysis Sock Puppet Theatre Augusta Baker Lady Legend Librarian Civil Rights Movement
Added: 3 years ago
["Mills Historical Analysis Sock Puppet Theatre presents the history of Augusta Baker, American Hero" appears on screen, then cut to a "female" sock puppet (with lipstick and yarn for hair) in front of a map background and speaking directly to the camera]
REPORTER: Good morning, and welcome to this week's informative episode of Historical Analysis Sock Puppet Theatre! Today on our program, we explore the life of a woman who revolutionized children's literature in American public libraries, and made it possible for stories of African American history and culture to be available in a format interesting and engaging for young people in a time when such literature simply did not exist in public libraries. So sit back, grab a cookie, and join us on our journey to meet Augusta Baker ... the lady, the legend, the librarian!
[cut to another shot of the sock puppet]
REPORTER: Augusta Braxton, later Baker, was born in Baltimore Maryland on April 1st, 1911. The only child of Mabel and Winfort Braxton, both teachers, she had the full benefit of her parents' appreciation for the value of education and reading. Augusta was named for her grandmother, who would read stories to her when her parents were at work. The grandmother Augusta grew up as a slave, but was taught to read and write because her mother worked in the main house.
[cut to the "Augusta Baker" sock puppet speaking directly to the camera]
AUGUSTA BAKER: My grandmother took care of me during the day while my parents worked. She was a wonderful storyteller, and I was constantly harassing her to read to me. She told me the old English tales and, of course, Br'er Rabbit stories, but not with dialect. As an only child, I was entertained for hours with her wonderful stories.
[cut back to the reporter puppet]
REPORTER: When Augusta was sixteen, she started at the University of Pittsburgh. At seventeen, she married James Baker, a social worker graduate student. Together, they moved to Albany New York. Augusta had some trouble transferring to the New York College for Teachers, today known as State University of New York's School of Education. They at first refused to admit her unless she completed her practice teaching at an off-campus segregated school. She refused, and it took the combined effort of representatives from the University of Pittsburgh and Eleanor Roosevelt herself - whilst her husband was governor - to have her admitted properly.
[cut back to Augusta Baker]
AUGUSTA BAKER: When I transferred to SUNY, it was very prejudiced times. Misses Roosevelt had to use her influence to get me into the college. It didn't want any black students, but it also didn't want to go against the governor's wife. So I got in.
[cut back to the reporter puppet]
REPORTER: However, though she was finally welcomed into the program, she eventually realized that she did not want to follow her parents' footsteps and become a teacher. Rather, she wanted to work with books. She was the first African American at SUNY to receive a librarianship masters degree. Augusta had a son, also named James. She and James Senior divorced, however, and she re-married in 1944 to Gordon Alexander. In 1937, she began work at the One Hundred and Thirty Fifth Street Harlem branch of the New York Public Library System as a children's librarian. She was one of only about ten other Black librarians in the entire system. It was there that she discovered a gaping hole in the available literature for children. She was content with the size of the collection of books about African American history and culture in the non-fiction section, but was sorely displeased with the lack of juvenile fiction in that area. As a children's librarian, Augusta also held youth programs and storytime. In fact, she trained with Mary Gould Davis, at the time the story-telling supervisor for the New York Public Library in story-telling technique. She learned that she particularly enjoyed telling Haitian and African folktales.
[cut to another sock puppet ("Edward T. James, author of Notable American Women")]
EDWARD T. JAMES: Baker's storytelling style was either dryly witty or humorously inclusive, depending upon her story and her audience. Her delivery was smooth, her manner confident, her timing impeccable. Her storytelling was the epitome of enthusiastic control, and her reputation as a master teller was well deserved.
[cut to another sock puppet ("Donald G. Davis, author of Dictionary of American Library Biography")]
DONALD G. DAVIS: She became a spellbinding storyteller who enchanted audiences of children and ... adults. Her reputation as a master storyteller spread, and she presented workshops across the country and co-authored a book with Ellin Greene titled "Storytelling: Art and Technique," that is still the most useful handbook in storytelling today.
[cut to another puppet "holding" a Mills College pennant]
GIRL: And it's conveniently located in the Mills College library!
[cut back to the reporter puppet]
REPORTER: In 1939, she started building a collection of books for children that accurately portrayed African American life and culture. She began collecting and requesting that the library purchase books that would encourage kids to read about their heritage. She also wrote letters to editors and publishers, which resulted in lists of authors and illustrators with current or potential publications of the sort she was seeking. This collection is now known as the "James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection."
[cut back to Augusta Baker]
AUGUSTA BAKER: I tried to get libraries to buy accurate books about Blacks, pestered Black writers to write for children, and looked for illustrators who would draw true representations of Blacks.
[cut back to the reporter puppet]
REPORTER: In 1946, Baker published "Books about Negro Life for Children," a bibliography of this collection. Baker writes in the introduction, "It is the purpose of this list to bring together books for children that give an unbiased, accurate, and well rounded picture of Negro life in all parts of the world. Language, theme, and illustration have been scrutinized with this aim in mind, and choices made accordingly." In 1953, Baker became the supervisor of story-telling and assistant coordinator of children's services, making her the first African American administrator in the New York Public Library System. She became the coordinator of children's services in 1961, and with that position came the responsibility of chairing all youth programming and policy making in the eighty two New York Public Library branches.
[cut back to Edward T. James]
EDWARD T. JAMES: Baker seized the opportunity to improve the quality of the library's juvenile collections, emphasizing culturally inclusive books and audiovisual materials. Her influence grew beyond the public library to training schools and professional organizations. She presented at national and international conferences, and lectured extensively on storytelling, children's literature, and library programming. She consulted for the television program ... ahem, "Sesame Street," acted as an adviser to Weston Woods Media Company, and moderated the weekly radio program "The World of Children's Literature."
[cut back to the reporter puppet]
REPORTER: In addition, she participated in the American Library Association on a number of levels, such as serving as the president of the Children's Services Division. Baker also chaired the committee for the Newbery and Caldecott awards. She worked for thirty seven before retiring from the New York Public Library in 1974. Augusta and Gordon moved closer to her son James in South Carolina in 1980, where the University of South Carolina created a "Storyteller in Residence" position expressly for her. She retired from this position in 1994. On February 23rd, 1998, at eighty six years old, she died in South Carolina.
REPORTER: Augusta Baker was significant to the civil rights of all Americans. She aided the nation's children by giving them an accurate and positive portrayal of the African American community. Instrumental in filling a conspicuous gap in the children's library collection, she was one of the first African American women that achieved success as a librarian and storyteller ... And that concludes this week's episode of Historical Analysis Sock Puppet Theatre. We hope you've enjoyed your time with us today, and that you will return next week for another exciting adventure into the past! Thank you and have a wonderful morning!
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Augusta Braxton Baker was an African-American librarian and storyteller, renowned for her contributions to children's literature.
Augusta Braxton Baker was born on April 1, 1911 in Baltimore, Maryland. Both of her parents were schoolteachers, who instilled in her a love of reading. During the day while her parents worked, her grandmother, Augusta Fax (from whom she received her name) cared for and told her stories. Baker delighted in these stories, carrying her love for them throughout her life. She learned to read before starting elementary school, later enrolling in the (racially segregated) black high school where her father taught, and graduating at the age of 16. Baker then entered the University of Pittsburgh, where she both met and married James Baker by the end of her sophomore year.
Relocating with her husband to New York, Baker sought to transfer to Albany Teacher's College (now the State University of New York at Albany), only to be met with racial opposition from the college. It was then the wife of Franklin Roosevelt (who was then the Governor of New York), Eleanor, who was on the board of the Albany Interracial Council (now the Albany Urban League) and heavily advocated for Baker's successful transfer. Though the college did not want to admit blacks, they also did not want to oppose the governor's wife, and Baker was admitted. She completed her education there, earning a B.A. in education in 1933 and in 1934 became the first African American to graduate from the college with a B.S. in library science.
After graduation, Baker taught for a few years, until she was hired in 1937 as the children's librarian at the New York Public Library's 135th Street Branch (now the Countee Cullen Regional Branch) in Harlem.
In 1939, the branch began an effort to find and collect children's literature that portrayed black people as something other than "servile buffoons," speaking in a rude dialect, and other such stereotypes. This collection, founded by Baker as the James Weldon John Memorial Collection of Children's Books, led to the publication of the first of a number of bibliographies of books for and about black children. Baker furthered this project by encouraging authors, illustrators, and publishers to produce, as well as libraries to acquire, books depicting blacks in a favorable light.
In 1953, she was appointed Storytelling Specialist and Assistant Coordinator of Children's Services. Not long after that, she became Coordinator of Children's Services in 1961, becoming the first African-American librarian in an administrative position in the New York Public Library. In this role, she oversaw children's programs in the entire NYPL system and set policies for them. During this time, Baker also figured prominently in the American Library Association's Children's Services Division (now the Association for Library Service to Children), having served as its president. Additionally, she chaired the committee that awarded the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal. Furthermore, Baker influenced many children's authors and illustrators--such as Maurice Sendak, Madeleine L'Engle, Ezra Jack Keats, and John Steptoe--while in this position. She also worked as a consultant for the then newly created children's television series Sesame Street.
In 1974, Baker retired from the New York Public Library. However, in 1980, she returned to librarianship to assume the newly created Storyteller-in-Residence position at the University of South Carolina; this was also the first such position in any American university at the time. She remained there until her second retirement in 1994. During her time there, Baker cowrote a book entitled Storytelling: Art and Technique with colleague Ellin Green, which was published in 1987.
After a long illness, Baker died at the age of 86 on February 23, 1998. Her legacy has remained even today, particularly through the "A(ugusta) Baker's Dozen: A Celebration of Stories" annual storytelling festival. Sponsored by the University of South Carolina College of Library and Information Science and the Richland County Public Library, this festival originated in 1987 during Baker's time at the University, and is celebrated still to this day.
Her legacy also continues through the Augusta Baker Collection of Children's Literature and Folklore at the University of South Carolina. The collection, donated by her son, James H. Baker III, contains over 1,600 children's books, including materials from her personal and working library, as well as papers, illustrations, and anthologies of folktales Baker used during her career.
Augusta Baker worked in Children's Services at The New York Public Library from 1937 to 1974. Beginning her career at the 135th Street Branch (now Countee Cullen Branch) and eventually becoming Coordinator of Children's Services in 1961. She is remembered as a strong advocate of the art of storytelling and a leader in promoting the meaningful depictions of African Americans in children's literature.
She was born Augusta Braxton in Baltimore in 1911. Her parents were both teachers. Her father taught high school math and her mother was an elementary school special education teacher. They along with her grandmother, a talented storyteller, instilled in her a love of books and storytelling. Growing up she suffered from racial discrimination, attending segregated schools in Baltimore. However, with support of her educator parents she advanced rapidly through school, graduating high school at age 15. She attended the University of Pittsburgh and met her first husband, James Baker III there. She graduated from Albany State Teacher's College with a degree in Library Science in 1934. While she considered a career in schools the freedom offered by the public library appealed to her.
She followed her husband James to New York City after getting her degree and applied to The New York Public Library. With the birth of her first child, she became reluctant to accept a position, especially one that only paid $110 a month. Anne Carroll Moore, the library's Supervisor of Work with Children, convinced her to work part-time at the 135th St. Branch until a full-time librarian could be hired. No replacement was found. Soon the rewards of working with children in the public library convinced Ms. Baker to devote her life to the work.
She established the 135th St Branch children's room as a center of cultural and recreational activity for the children of the neighborhood. Under branch librarian Ernestine Rose, who also taught public administration at Columbia University, she made extensive contacts throughout her community reaching out to local school and day care groups. One of the children she influenced there was a child named James Baldwin, who later became the world-renowned author. She established a toy lending library to help children whose family could not afford them. She later worked to establish a special collection of African American children's materials.
She received formal storytelling training from Mary Gould Davis who taught "The Art of Storytelling" at the library school of The New York Public Library. At first she felt uncomfortable with the formal requirements of storytelling at the library but she adapted so successfully she become the Assistant Coordinator of Children's Services and Storytelling Specialist for The New York Public Library from 1954 to 1961. In this role she trained new storytellers and promoted storytelling throughout the system. In 1955 she published Talking Tree, her first collection of stories. In 1957 she developed the influential book list Books about Negro Life for Children . In it she identified, possibly for the first time, children's titles that gave an accurate and meaningful description of African American life. The work has been updated many times since then and is currently titled The Black Experience in Children's Books, the most recent being produced by the library in 2004. It serves as a guide for librarians, teachers and parents around the country.
In 1961 she became Coordinator of Children's Services and served in this position until her retirement in 1974. In this position she influenced the careers of many children's authors and illustrators including Ezra Jack Keats, Madeleine L'Engle, Maurice Sendak and John Steptoe. She began introducing more audiovisual materials to library collections and served as a consultant to the newly formed children's television program Sesame Street. She served on the Executive Board of the American Library Association and as president of the president of Association for Library Service to Children and chaired the Newbery/Caldecott Award committee. Throughout her work at the American Library Association she strove to increase career opportunities for African American librarians.
In 1980 Baker accepted a position as Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of South where she worked until 1994. The Augusta Baker's Dozen Storytelling Festival in South Carolina was established in her honor. Augusta Baker died on February 23, 1998.