Although the Indianapolis Public Library was founded in 1873 with an official policy that proclaimed it “open to all,” segregation in the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) and de facto neighborhood segregation led to segregated branch libraries. African American residents in Martindale, for example, did not frequent the nearby Spades Park branch library, built in 1912 on the city’s northeast side in a predominantly white neighborhood. Charles Rush, Indianapolis’ head librarian in the 1920s, made it his mission to plant libraries in Indianapolis communities not yet reached. On May 16, 1922, he opened the doors to the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library Branch, named for the renowned Black American poet and novelist, within the walls of the segregated and newly constructed John Hope School No. 26, located in Martindale. It was the first Indianapolis Public Library branch established specifically to serve an African American community. At this time, the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners governed the Indianapolis Public Library system, and other library branches operated out of IPS schools.

Students sit at tables in a library.
Dunbar Library, ca. 1920s Credit: Oaks Academy

Lillian Haydon Childress Hall, the first African American to graduate from an accredited library school in Indiana, became the opening branch manager of the Dunbar Library. Hall served there until 1927, at which time she transitioned to head the public library branch at the new segregated Crispus Attucks High School.

The social and economic burdens of the Great Depression impacted the Dunbar Library and its community. While circulation doubled during the 1930s, circulation for adults consistently stayed relatively low. Still, the library served the students at School No. 26 as well as other neighboring school communities, and the library’s 13,000 books were rich in resources on Black culture, history, and poetry. In 1949, under the leadership of Principal George L. Hayes, IPS added a southwest extension to the School No. 26 building. The Dunbar Library moved to a new and larger location in the newly built southwest wing.

Headshot of Lillian Haydon Childress.
Lillian Haydon Childress Hall, 1929 Credit: Indiana University Indianapolis View Source

The Dunbar Library was the last public library school branch to close in 1967, in part due to reorganization and low circulation. The Marion County Library merged with Indianapolis Public Library and separated from the IPS school board in 1968. The Dunbar Library continued to serve School No. 26 until it closed in 1997.

On May 16, 2022, the centennial of the opening of the doors of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library, an Indiana Historical Marker was dedicated in honor of the library and the school it called home for 45 years.

Revised December 2022

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