Baker, Augusta 1911–1998
Augusta Baker 1911–1998
Librarian, storyteller, educator, author
Occasionally an individual steps forward to achieve something that is extraordinary, and in doing so, she makes possible the dreams of many others. Such a person was Augusta Baker, a woman who was born as the grandchild of slaves, and who became a nationally known story teller, writer, educator, and librarian. Her story is a story to inspire all of those young children who find magic in the touch and smell of books and papers and ink, and who find the lure of the library an invitation too rich in possibilities to resist.
Baker was born Augusta Braxston on April 1, 1911, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents, Winfort J. and Mabel (Gough) Braxston, were both schoolteachers. Baker’s father taught in an all-black high school and her mother taught at an elementary school, where she worked with students enrolled in special education classes. Baker’s grandmother also shared the Braxston home, and it was her stories of earlier family history that would eventually lead Baker toward a career as a storyteller. As was customary in the early years of the twentieth century, Baker’s mother left teaching to stay at home when her child was born, but although she had left the classroom, she continued to emphasize the importance of education at home. The frustrated teacher in Baker’s stay-at-home-mother found an outlet in the education of her child. She put all her energy in helping her daughter receive a thorough education. As a child, her parents pushed Baker toward books, often reading to her and encouraging her to read quality literature. Every member of the family understood the importance of education. Her father was so determined to earn a graduate degree that he traveled from Baltimore to New York City every summer to attend Columbia University. He eventually earned a master’s degree in mathematics, and it may certainly have been her father’s persistence in achieving this degree that would inspire Baker to achieve so much in her own life.
One result of this emphasis on education was first seen in the way that her elementary school kept trying to push Baker ahead, skipping her through grades until her father put a stop to the practice. He believed that pushing his daughter through school too quickly would leave her without the socialization that all children need. Baker herself admitted the difficulty that skipping grades caused her in an interview with Robert V. Williams for the University of South Carolina Library History Project, saying, “I was too young for the children with whom I was in school … And I found myself really struggling … not necessarily struggling with the material but with relationships.” When Baker finished high school at the age of 15, she enrolled at Pittsburgh University and for the first time encountered the difficulties of integration. Because she had grown up in Baltimore where public schools and neighborhoods were still segregated, Baker found that she had developed a prejudice of sorts, what she called a “prejudice through ignorance,” to Williams. Pittsburgh forced her to deal with the problems and pitfalls of relationships with white students as well as what it meant to be black at an integrated university.
At a Glance…
Born on April 1, 1911, in Baltimore, MD; died on February 23, 1998; daughter of Winfort J, .Braxston and Mabel Gough Braxston; married James Henry Baker (divorced);married Gordon Alexander; children: James Henry Baker III. Education: Attended University of Pittsburgh, 1926-1929; Albany State Teachers’ College, BA, 1933, BS, 1934.
Career: New York Public Library, Children’s librarian, 1937-54, assistant coordinator and storytelling specialist, 1954-61, coordinator of children’s services, 1961-74; University of South Carolina, College of Library and Information Services, storyteller-in-residence, 1980-94; author of works including: Books About Negro Life for Children, Talking Tree, Golden Lynx, Once Upon a Time; and coauthor of Storytelling: Art and Technique.
Awards: Dutton-McCrae Award, 1953, for advanced work in library studies for children; American Library Association’s Grolier Award for contributions to children and young people, 1968; Parents’ Magazine medal for outstanding service, 1966; ALA Honorary life member, 1975; Distinguished Alumni Award from the State University of New York at Albany, 1974; A(ugusta) Baker’s Dozen—Celebration of Stories, an annual event co-sponsored by the College of Library and Information Science and the Richmond County Public Library, created in 1986; two honorary doctorates; Regina Medal, Catholic Library Association, 1981; Constance Lindsay Skinner Award, National Book Association, 1971.
During her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Baker met her first husband, James Baker Jr., who was a graduate student completing a master’s degree in social work. After a courtship period, the couple wed during Baker’s junior year of college and soon moved to Albany, New York, where James was assigned to set up an Inter-Racial Council. It was in Albany that Baker first encountered the true effects of racism. Since she had not finished her practice teaching in Pittsburgh, Baker transferred to Albany State Teachers’ College (now the State University of New York at Albany), and rather than assign her to Milne High School, the elite high school where other teaching interns completed their practice teaching, Baker was placed in an elementary school in the black section of Albany. She refused to agree to this placement, and her admission to Albany State Teacher’s College was subsequently withdrawn. Baker however pursued action to ensure her acceptance to the school on her terms. She told Williams, “I wrote to the University of Pittsburgh and told them what was happening and that they really didn’t want to admit me. So Pitt wrote back to Albany and said if I was good enough to be a student at the University of Pittsburgh, they thought I could handle Albany State Teacher’s College.” Adding fuel to the fire was Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the board of the Albany Inter-racial Council and the wife of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who interceded on Baker’s behalf. Finally, after months of perseverance, Baker was readmitted, and did her practice teaching at Milne.
A year-and-a-half into her time at Albany, Baker discovered the profession of library work. According to Baker, it was almost an accident. “I was going back and forth to the public library—it was called Carnegie Public Library—and had an opportunity to compare that type of librarianship with school librarianship.” Baker was already the Wallace School librarian, but as she began to learn the difference between public libraries and school libraries, she began to realize that the job of a public librarian was truly her calling. After this revelation, it was hard for her to continue at Albany for as Baker told Williams, “When I got interested in being a librarian was when I lost interest in being a teacher and in being the Wallace School librarian.” Still, Baker pushed forward and received her teaching degree from Albany State Teachers’ College in 1933. With the encouragement of the head of the library school, Baker continued on at Albany, eventually completing a practi-cum at the Carnegie Public Library and a second one at Milne High School. Her studies in library science also led Baker to the Folklore Society and to a revival of an earlier interest she had in storytelling.
After Baker received her degree in library science in 1934, she and her husband moved to Manhattan, where he was to help set up a relief bureau as part of President Roosevelt’s home relief program. Baker immediately applied to the New York Public Library system for a job, but initially there were no openings. In September of 1936, Baker gave birth to a son, James “Buddy” Baker III. In February of 1937 Baker finally obtained the position she had sought earlier. The New York Public Library system needed a black children’s librarian at the 135th Street branch in Harlem. The job was a full-time position, and Baker’s mother-in-law came to New York from Virginia to care for Buddy, while Baker began her first real job as a librarian. When she began her new career, the job paid only ten dollars a month and was a part of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, an effort to put people to work in federally funded jobs. Baker agreed to take the job as a temporary position, but there was never any effort to find another librarian to replace her, and Baker ultimately held the position for the next 17 years, until 1954.
One of the first things that Baker discovered in her new job was the lack of quality books for black children. Books for black children were filled with stereotypes, such as those found in Little Black Sambo. Rather than stocking the shelves with books that reinforced images of black children as ignorant or as servants or slaves, Baker wanted to obtain books that would inspire black children to achieve more with their lives. Baker quickly began to try to fill this need. Initially she created an African-American list of books, which was little more than a reference list that contained the titles of books that Baker felt more accurately portrayed the lives of black children and that offered positive role models for black children. With the help of community leaders, parents and teachers, she established the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of children’s books, which was derived from Baker’s initial list. This collection, which was begun in 1939, is now housed in the New York City Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In addition to building a children’s library, Baker also focused on storytelling, and she received in-service training from the library system to perfect her skills. Although she had to repeat the training a second time in order to pass, Baker eventually revealed a natural talent for storytelling. In her interview with Williams, Baker credited practice as well as “knowledge of literature … knowing the criteria” with making her a good storyteller. Baker quickly learned how to judge the quality of the book, the writer, and the illustrator, and used that experience to help her select good books. She also learned how to listen to the children and to apply that listening to the telling of a story. Baker was so successful as a storyteller that in 1953 she was appointed as storytelling specialist for the New York Public Library system. With this job came the responsibility of training other storytellers. By the following year, Baker had been appointed assistant coordinator of children’s services and supervisor of storytelling, a position she held from 1954 to 1961. In 1961 she was appointed children’s coordinator for the entire New York Public Library system, which included 82 branches, the first black woman to hold this important position. When she finally retired from the New York Public Library system in 1974, Baker had worked for 37 years at a job that she had originally agreed to fulfill only if it was temporary.
In the years when Baker was at the library, many things in her life changed. She and her husband were divorced and she married Gordon Alexander in November of 1944. Baker’s job was so demanding that her son went to Baltimore to be raised by Baker’s mother, but Buddy was still able to spend holidays and vacations with his mother in New York. Baker also began teaching summer workshops at Syracuse University and Columbia University, as well as at Allen University in South Carolina and at the University of South Carolina. In addition to her work as a librarian and teacher, Baker also found the time to edit several books, including four collections of children’s books. Her first publication, Books About Negro Life For Children, was a bibliography that she had amassed in her goal to improve literature for black children. This bibliography was reissued in 1971 as The Black Experience in Children’s Books. Her several collections of children’s stories include Talking Tree, Golden Lynx, Young Years: Best Loved Stories and Poems for Little Children, and Once Upon a Time. Baker also co-wrote Storytelling: Art and Technique with Ellin Greene.
After Baker retired from the library in 1974, she continued to provide assistance for the children of New York. She helped to establish an organization within the New York Public Library called Friends of Children Services. Its purpose was to try to preserve the children’s collections and to make sure that money destined for children’s services was not funneled into the adult library system. In 1980 Baker agreed to become storyteller-in-residence at the College of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. This position was created especially for Baker as the first of its kind at any university. Baker held this position until 1990, when she once again retired. The library now maintains a collection of documents devoted to Baker’s work. Called the Augusta Baker Papers, these documents relate her efforts to promote literature about black children that is free of stereotypical language. Baker wanted to give black children a reason to have pride in their own heritage and race, and also wanted to provide white children with a history of blacks that would reveal the truth about black life. The documents in the Augusta Baker Papers reveal a lifetime of effort in pursuit of this cause.
In addition to a career as a children’s librarian, a storyteller, and a book editor, Baker was a consultant and bibliographer for the children’s television series Sesame Street. She also served as an advisor to Weston Woods Media, a studio that adapts children’s classic books to film. Baker held several positions with the American Library Association and in its children’s division. Beginning in 1971 she broadcast a weekly series, The World of Children’s Literature, on WNYC Radio. Upon her death in February of 1998, her son donated more than 1,600 books to establish the Baker Collection in the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina.
Books About Negro Life for Children, New York Public Library, 1946; reissued as The Black Experience in Children’s Books, New York Public Library, 1971.
Talking Tree, Lippincott, 1955.
Golden Lynx, Lippincott, 1960.
Young Years: Best Loved Stories and Poems for Little Children, edited by Eugenia Garson, Parents’ Magazine Press, 1960.
Once Upon a Time, New York Library Association, 1964.
(With Ellin Greene) Storytelling: Art and Technique, Bowker, 1977, 2nd edition, 1987.
Jet, March 16, 1998, p. 16.
Augusta Baker http://www.libsci.sc.edu/baker/baker.htm
University of South Carolina Library History Project, http://www.libsci.sc.edu/histories/oralhistory/bakertran.htm
Youth Division—The Central Library http://www.queenslibrary.org/central/youth/Baker.asp
—Sheri Elaine Metzger and Ralph G. Zerbonia