BY THE BOOK
part 1 of 2
Thin and frail, Pauline Robinson lay down on her couch. She would have liked to read a book to pass the time, but her cataracts made that all but impossible.
The difficulty was irritating; there was still so much she wanted to read, and at her age, time was passing faster than ever. She was scheduled for operations to correct her vision problems. Tonight, however, there was nothing to do but wait for her husband to come home.
Howard was attending a meeting at the Park Hill library. On this night, February 15, 1995, the Denver Public Library commission was going to announce its decision on the name for a new library at the corner of 33rd Avenue and Holly Street. Pauline Robinson was one of the names on the short list, a recognition of her four decades of service with the DPL, where she'd been the first black professional hired. But there were other names, famous names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Wellington Webb, and they had their supporters, too.
On the coffee table at her side was an autobiography she put together after friends nominated her for the library honor. A photograph of her taken in 1942--the year she graduated from the University of Denver--stared up from the cover. Inside was the story of what had brought a poor, skinny girl from the black farm settlement of Gay, Oklahoma, to this point in her life. It was all there in black and white...neatly typed remembrances and carefully clipped newspaper stories and photographs of Pauline at the various libraries where she had worked, usually surrounded by children and reading a book.
The living room of her small, neat brick home in northeast Denver also reflected the life she lived. The trophies for bridge championships, including her Life Master's certificate. The photographs of the children she and Howard raised--all relatives; there had been none of their own.
But mostly it was a life reflected in the books that lined the shelves, only a fraction of the volumes she and Howard collected through the years. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a warning of what can happen when otherwise intelligent people give in to their fears and prejudices. Classics like War and Peace and Lady Chatterley's Lover. The history and culture of African-Americans, from Roots to Up From Slavery: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Cookbooks. Bridge books. These days she was interested in books about mathematics. If only her eyes would cooperate.
She had just turned eighty the month before. Still, while age and illness had knocked her body down, they had not quenched her thirst for knowledge. That was her heritage and that would be her legacy, whether they named a library after her or not.
It didn't really matter to her. At least, not as much as it did to Howard, the gentle postal worker who had been her support for more than fifty years. And not as much as it did to her friends and fans attending the meeting to make sure that no "hanky-panky," as Howard put it, robbed her of the tribute.
Certainly, it was an honor to have been nominated and then moved so far through the process. But for her, the reward had always been showing children the magic of words on the printed page. By the thousands the children had come to her, sometimes cold, sometimes embarrassed, always hungry to learn.
Like Pauline when she was a girl.
Charlie Short sat down in the living-room chair as his grandchildren gathered expectantly around him on the floor. Six-year-old Pauline moved close. She loved listening to his voice and watching his face when he was telling one of his stories. She thought he looked like Santa Claus with his long white beard, snowy hair, blue eyes and light skin.
Her father, James S. Short, was outside working in his fields of cotton, corn, beans and peanuts. When he came in, the family would eat and then the kids would have to buckle down to their studies, but for now they were free to close their eyes and let their grandfather paint pictures in their minds of times past.
This afternoon's story was about when Charlie was a boy in Texas in the years before the slaves were freed. His voice was soothing, matter-of-fact, as he launched into his tale.
His mama, "your great-grandmother," was a house servant for the master of a cotton plantation. The master was also his father. He'd had eight sons by his white wife, and one, Charlie, by a slave woman.
Now, a master having children by his female slaves was not uncommon. But what was unusual about this master was the decency--albeit under the dark cloud of slavery--with which he treated his black son.
In those days it was against the law to teach blacks how to read and write; after all, an educated man is a man who dreams of freedom and finds a way to obtain it. But Charlie's white half-brothers went to school, and they were allowed to teach him what they learned. Charlie drank in the lessons like a man rescued from the desert drinks water. Gulping knowledge down, unsure of when the next opportunity would come.
But not everyone on the plantation approved of Charlie's place in the household. One day, when Charlie was no longer a little boy and his father was away, the white overseer ordered him to the fields to join the other slaves picking cotton. Charlie ran off--a crime that was usually severely punished.
Afraid for his life, Charlie ran until he thought he could run no more. Then he saw his father riding across the fields and flagged him down. His father reined in his horse and, reaching down, pulled Charlie up behind him. He took Charlie home, never to return to the fields, and the boy was allowed to continue learning from his half-brothers.
"And that's how I learned to read and write," he said. The story finished, Charlie sent his grandchildren off to finish their chores. Pauline fetched kindling for the wood-burning stove, glad that she wasn't a slave.
The War Between the States ended when Charlie was still a boy and the slaves in Texas, the last to hear of the Emancipation Proclamation, were freed. The Short family and other former slaves from the same region migrated to Oklahoma and eventually to the settlement of Gay. The Shorts took with them their blue-eyed genes and that unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Charlie passed on his love for learning to his son, James, who married Corene Stone in 1904. Together they produced eight children, including Pauline, who was born in 1915.
The population of Gay was 95 percent black, most of them farmers who scratched out a meager living growing cotton and other crops. The Shorts were as poor as any. They lived in a wood house with few amenities, so cramped for space that the dining room also served as a bedroom for the children.
But somehow James always was able to scrape up a few cents to buy books. He built shelves and lined them with Hawthorne, Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Kipling's The Light That Failed. And what few books there were about the experiences of the American black: the biography of educator Booker T. Washington and Up From Slavery: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
No matter how tired he was after a day working in the fields, after supper James would see that the table was cleared and a miniature schoolroom set up in the dining room, complete with blackboard, eraser and chalk. While the other siblings watched and listened, each child would be called to the board and grilled about that day's school lessons or asked to give an oral report about a book he or she had read.
At night James would sit at his children's bedsides and read books aloud by the smoky yellow light of a kerosene lamp. "Without struggle there is no progress," he'd say, repeating Douglass's admonition.
The children would bring home their school books and he'd read those, too. There were no daily newspapers in Gay, but several times a week he'd pick up a paper from the local store. "It's important that you know what is going on in the world around you," he'd say, reading from the newspapers. "Read if you want to understand."
From watching and listening, Pauline knew how to read before she ever set foot in a schoolroom. As she got older, she read to her younger siblings as she had been read to by the older children. A skinny child who had inherited her great-grandfather's blue eyes, she strained them trying to read late into the night. She never considered reading a chore. She loved how books could take her from the hot, humid farmlands of Oklahoma to anyplace in the world.
In a fourth-grade geography class, she saw a map of Colorado and first read about the mountains and prairies. "That's where I'm going to live someday," she told herself. But in the meantime, she traveled through books.
In the nearby town of Hugo was a small library with about 300 volumes. The first time she visited, she couldn't believe that so much knowledge could be stored in one place. She pulled the first book off the shelf and took it home. When she finished it, she returned to the library, pulled down the second, read and returned it. Then the third, the fourth, the fifth and so on until she had read every book the library offered. And still she wanted more.
In the Twenties dust storms swept across Oklahoma, ruining the farms of whites and blacks without preference. The Shorts held on as long as they could, but when a plague of boll weevils chewed their way into the cotton crop in 1927, there was nothing they could do to save the farm from creditors.
Having lost their land, James and a cousin decided to move farther west. Piling two families into one car, there was little room for possessions, and much was left behind. But there were some things that James Short refused to part with: the family's books.
Pauline got her fourth-grade wish in 1933, when she moved to Denver. Two aunts lived in the city and invited her to join them there. She graduated from high school that spring in Lawton, Oklahoma--where the family had settled--and had high hopes of someday going to college. But she had no money. Rather than allow her education to grind to a halt, she enrolled in the Emily Griffith Opportunity School without telling administrators that she already had one high school diploma.
It was while attending Emily Griffith that she saw her first large library: the Denver Public Library. She thought she had died and gone to heaven as she wandered in awe past aisle after aisle of books. So much knowledge, so little time to take it all in.
Pauline graduated from Emily Griffith in 1935 in the top 6 percent of her class. Her counselor advised her that her grades had earned her a half-tuition scholarship to the University of Denver. "But I can't afford even half," said Pauline, who paid her own living expenses by cooking and cleaning for a white family.
The counselor pulled several forms out of her desk. They were from the National Youth Administration, which might be persuaded, she said, to pick up the other half. Asking Pauline the pertinent questions, the counselor filled out the forms and mailed them off. A few weeks later Pauline learned she had a full scholarship.
She was thrilled. While waiting for news from the NYA, she dared to dream. She liked history and government courses and had seen enough prejudice against blacks to know she wanted to be a lawyer. But not just any lawyer. When she closed her eyes, she saw herself arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court for the rights of all downtrodden people.
She went to the university with her head up and her hopes even higher. The school arranged to give her glasses. All that reading by lamplight had weakened her vision, she was told. She was amazed at how well she could see the mountains to the west that had inspired her so long ago.
And she soon found something else to inspire her: She fell in love.
The Beverley Gardens, a westside dance hall, was a popular spot for young people to meet. One Sunday she was there with her boyfriend when a young man with big, dark eyes came up and asked her to dance.
"I'm with someone," she said, though not displeased by the offer.
As chance or fate would have it, her boyfriend, who chauffered for a wealthy white family, soon left with the family for Florida. So the next week when she went back to the dance hall, Pauline was with a girlfriend. She was listening to the music when the same young man approached.
"So where's the guy you were with?" he asked.
"Gone," she replied.
"Would you like to dance?" Howard Robinson asked again.
"Yes." They danced together the whole evening, and at the end of the night, he asked if he could escort her home. "Yes," she said again.
Howard and Pauline were married October 8, 1940. By then, Howard knew that his wife was not the stay-at-home sort.
To help with her school expenses, Pauline was working at the Community Vocational Center library, a neighborhood library at 2563 Glenarm Place that loaned cast-off books from the DPL. The library was located in the upstairs of the building; downstairs was a National Youth Administration cooking school.
Pauline discovered she had a particular affinity for the children who wandered into the building. The Depression was ending, but this was a poor neighborhood, and many people couldn't afford to heat their homes. Pauline suspected the children came to the library to get warm, but she saw it as an opportunity to show them the magic she had found as a child. Making sure they washed their hands first, she set them to work returning books to shelves--the first "volunteers" in the DPL system. As a reward for their work, she would read stories to them or get them to read to her.
Many of these children were black, and that reminded her of how little there was in the public library pertaining to people of color. She began soliciting local businesses for money to buy subscriptions to black-oriented magazines and newspapers.
Still, there was no money in the library budget to purchase books for and about blacks. So she asked her boss at the library if she could have a pie sale to raise the funds. "I'll ask businesses for donations and do the work myself," she promised.
Her boss shrugged. "If that's what you want to do, it's fine with me."
Pauline approached the NYA downstairs. Could she use the stoves for her project? Yes, she was told, and what's more, they would help with the baking.
So Pauline set off to ask neighborhood businesses, many of which she had already hit up for the magazine subscriptions, for donations to buy flour, sugar and pie filling. A bakery donated ten pie pans.
Back at the NYA kitchens, she and the other volunteers began rolling the dough and putting the pies in the ovens. When the first batch was finished, Pauline and Howard were off again to sell them--heading right back to the businesses that had donated the money to make the pies.
Block after block, she and Howard peddled the pies until they sold the last of them, 150 in all. Pauline had worn holes in the paper soles of her cheap shoes, but she had $40 to spend on books. That was the start of the DPL's first collection of books dealing with black history and culture.
Howard looked on with pride as his happy wife placed the books on the shelf of the library. He'd never had much of an education himself, but under Pauline's watchful eye, he, too, discovered the joys of reading.
Even with Howard's postal job, it was tough making ends meet, and Pauline occasionally had to drop her classes for a semester to work full-time at the library. When she was in school, she rode a bus to the DU campus in south Denver. Every morning, a black woman who worked as a domestic servant for a white family would sit down beside her and ask, "Are you still in school?"
For three years the woman sat down and repeated her question until one day, Pauline had had enough. Before the woman could open her mouth, Pauline asked, "Are you still a servant?" She never saw the woman again.
The university itself wasn't free of prejudice. Pauline was one of only five blacks in her freshman class, and it didn't take long to discover that some administrators, instructors and even fellow students weren't thrilled that blacks were being admitted to DU.
Most of the prejudice was subtle. On a physiology test she would have scored 100 percent except for one misspelled word. The professor had never said anything about docking points for spelling. At the end of the quarter, she had a total of 95 points out of a possible 100 because of that one test. The professor gave her a B for the class. When she asked him why, he shrugged and said, "An A starts at 96."
Still, there were many more white students and instructors who reached out to help her, particularly her advisor, Elizabeth Fachkt. The woman not only counseled Pauline about her education, she was her friend.
end of part 1
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