The Carnegie Negro Library on the campus of Bennett College in Greensboro North Carolina is one of the 1,689 libraries built in the United from States from 1883 to 1929; with much of the money, usually 90%, coming from Andrew Carnegie; the “rags to riches” businessman who made a fortune with his Carnegie Steel Company. Carnegie sold his company in 1901 at age 66, and spent the last 18 years of his life giving most of his fortune away.
Carnegie libraries in the United States are interesting in that they occur all over the U.S., in neighborhoods of all economic strata. In applying for one of the library grants, all that was asked of a community was that it demonstrate the need for a library, provide the land, and 10% of the building cost. The Carnegie foundation would provide the remaining 90% of building costs. Communities were rarely turned down.
In the segregated American South, this library, sitting on the northwestern corner of the Bennett College campus, in a neighborhood considered in 1923 as “predominantly black,” had to be referred to as the “Negro Library,” to make it abundantly clear who the patrons would and would not be. Carnegie disliked the segregation system, believing that any human being, like he, could become successful through learning and hard work. But, he did not mind funding separate libraries if that is what it took to give library access to African-Americans.
The Carnegie Negro Library opened in 1924 with 150 volumes for neighborhood and college patrons to borrow. Though it may have been separate, and very small, the white library patrons in Greensboro really missed out, as the building, in my opinion, is and was the most beautiful library building in Guilford County. Carnegie libraries were not built from formula plans, regional architects were brought in for the design. This library is rich in classical details, such as the half-moon arch windows over all of the doors and windows. Inside is sparse and soaring, with large pendant lamps dropping down from the high, arched ceilings, mixing electric light with all of the ambient. Real wood stacks are everywhere to shelve the books, and the layout is designed in a symmetrical style. The focal point being a central desk siting up on a perch, where presumably the librarian would watch over all of the higher learning. Carnegie libraries are credited with introducing self-service stacks (before, most libraries were set up in a way to force you to ask the librarian for any volume you wanted to view and/or check out).
The library today seems more like a museum than place of higher learning. The library was built before many of the Bennett College buildings, and it sits on a soaring perch, overlooking downtown Greensboro, where the rest of Bennett College faces a long rectangle quad on Lee Street.