South City

The Cornelia Crensaw library is a "sanctuary" on Vance Avenue

The Cornelia Crenshaw library, located at 531 Vance Avenue, opened in 1939 as the first library branch open to Black Memphians. 

Memphis’s first library opened in 1893, but it was not until 1939 that the city’s African-American population could access a city library. In 1939, the city of Memphis purchased McDowell & Monetverde Funeral Home at 531 Vance Avenue and converted it to the Vance Avenue Library. The library, at Vance and Lauderdale, became the first library to serve the African-American residents in the segregated Memphis of that time.

Most library services to African-American Memphians were provided by Vance Avenue Library and the city schools until 1960, when all facilities became fully integrated. The Vance Avenue Library was also the first city library to use bookmobiles.

Kids hang out on the stoop of the Cornelia Crenshaw Library.

In July 1978, the Vance Library was completely destroyed by a fire, and lost many valuable materials including its collection of local African-American history. In the aftermath of the fire, there was debate about whether the library should be built at its original site or be relocated. Clayborn Temple was briefly considered to be the library’s new site. However, a new building was built on the original site, at 531 Vance, in 1981.

The library was patronized by residents such as Otis Higgs, who later went on to be a Shelby County judge, and Benjamin Hooks, who became executive director of the NAACP. In a full circle Memphis moment, the main branch of the Memphis library system, which is patronized by Memphians from every part of the city and every demographic group, now bears his name.

Bouts of shyness hit the group of kids about to present their vision boards as part of a Mother's Day program.

In 1997, the Vance Library was renamed the Cornelia Crenshaw Library in honor of a feisty Memphis activist who lived in the neighborhood and who died in 1994. One of her most prominent targets was Memphis Light Gas & Water. According to Debra Elliott-Tenort in a Commercial Appeal article noting the library’s new name, Crenshaw “was arrested after she refused to leave the City Council Chambers as part of a protest against a proposed Memphis Light Gas and Water Division rate increase.” Her activism was effective, and Crenshaw has been credited with pushing MLG&W to accept partial payments from people with outstanding bills to keep their power from being turned off.

Today, the Cornelia Crenshaw Library serves as a jewel in the neighborhood. A painting of the venerable Crenshaw, created by local artist Wiley Henry, hangs in the library that bears her name.

Janiya, 8, shows off the vision board she made during a Mother's Day event for kids in the "Girl Talk" program at the Cornelia Crenshaw library.

“She was a great role model for the community,” said Inger Upchurch, Crenshaw branch manager. “People would go to Miss Cornelia if they needed information. We (as library staff) want to empower people and provide information and help people like she did.”

That includes people like library patron Andrew Washington who comes to the library every day it is open.

“I don’t work until the afternoon, so it gives me a chance to research opportunities,” he said. Washington’s brother, a recent high school graduate who hopes to join the military, uses the library to take Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery practice tests.

“I grew up coming here,” said Washington. “It’s like a sanctuary.”

Inger Upchurch hugs one of the volunteers that came by to help the "Girl Talk" program at their event on May 13.
“We try to be a great community neighbor and community partner,” said Ernest Shinault, Crenshaw’s adult services librarian. Shinault designs and implements programming for adults, including a recent information session about money management hosted by Regions Bank.

The library also has robust programming for children with a constant stream of crafts and activities including Art Circle, in which kids can draw, relax, and talk. Last year, in honor of the Summer Olympic Games, kids who visited the library participated in Wacky Olympics.

Rayjenae, 7, browses the books at the Cornelia Crenshaw Library.

The library has many children’s books and hands-on activities like a puppet theater and a toy grocery area. Crenshaw hosts a well-attended Girl Talk program for teen girls and a Real Men Read program, which encourages men in the community to act as mentors while reading the school children. The Real Men Read program has been going on for ten years and in that time has benefitted 13,000 children, according to Upchurch’s estimates.

The library employees also perform outreach activities at local schools, such as Ida B. Wells Academy in Frayser.

Crenshaw is a busy neighborhood hub that stays packed during the summer and the weekend, Upchurch said. However, the recent closing of the Foote Homes public housing complex has resulted in the loss of some library regulars.

A photo of Raven, one of the girls in the "Girl Talk" program, hangs at the library as part of an event that took place in February.

Before the Memphis Housing Authority shuttered the complex in 2016 to lead the way for its redevelopment, Crenshaw hosted a community resource fair in which case managers met with Foote Homes resident  in order to give advice about next steps. Some former Foote Homes residents moved to Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, not far from the library. Others have left the neighborhood entirely and moved to Frayser or Whitehaven, but they come back occasionally and visit the Crenshaw branch.

“It’s still home,” said Upchurch. “It’s a welcoming place.”

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Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog.