African American Resource Center finds a new home in Burnett Library

There’s a bit of a head fake in the Burnett Library.

As you enter the main area and look to the left you see the sign promoting the African American Resource Center. Stroll over and underneath the sign you’ll see “Windows 10 For Dummies.”

Wait. What?

Don’t worry, although the signage hasn’t caught up, Burnett Library is still home to the city’s homegrown and founded resource for Black history. And now, rather than being tucked in the main room, it has a good-sized alcove all to itself. Walk past the desk of Shiloh Moore, senior librarian, where books on Harriet Tubman, the Tuskegee Airmen and Nat King Cole are displayed, and you’ll find the new home of the Resource Center.

There you’ll find a self-published autobiography by local activist Alice Robinson, co-founder of a free monthly hot lunch program at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Close by is “The Heritage of African Americans In Long Beach: Over 100 Years,” by genealogy expert Aaron Day and Indira Hale Tucker, along with “Untold Legacies: A Pictorial History of Black Long Beach 1900-2000,” edited by historian Sunny Nash.

That’s more like it.

The brainchild and legacy of the late Hale Tucker, as well as former vice mayor Doris Topsy-Elvord, the African American Resource Center features more than 1,000 items, including the Hale Tucker black women’s collection, the Burnett African American Heritage collection and children’s books and DVDs.

For years, before donating her collection to the library, Hale Tucker had volunteered at King Park teaching classes to children. Topsy-Elvord was director of the park before she was elected to Long Beach City Council as its first African American female member.

“God put us together,” said Topsy-Elvord, who served two, two-year terms as vice mayor. “[Hale Tucker] had a lot of interest in it and wanted it to succeed.”

Doris Topsy-Elvord

WIth Topsy-Elvord’s political acumen and Hale Tucker’s drive, the African American Heritage Society and Resource Center were created in 1997.

Glenda Williams, director of library services for Long Beach, said the collection is unique not only for its local focus but its optimistic subject matter.

“I think it was very important to [the founders] to have history and positive role models,” Williams said. “[Hale Tucker] wanted to have a collection that was inspiring.”

Angelique Chamberlain, vice president of the Heritage Society and daughter of Indira and Marcus Tucker, the first African American municipal judge in Los Angeles, said she grew up in a house overflowing with books.

Chamberlain, who lives in New York, said that after her parents died, “I must have donated thousands of books. Reading was a big passion of theirs.”

In particular, Chamberlain said her mom sought books of “lesser-known Black achievement. People that may not have been noticed and weren’t athletes or entertainers.”

Overseeing the resource center, with the help of librarian Moore, is Nicole Ballard. She says she stumbled across the collection at Burnett Library in 2018 while helping one of her home-schooled boys with a Black History project. She was struck by its themes and lesser known titles. That led her to the African American Heritage Society of Long Beach, the organization created to support the resource center.

After Hale Tucker died in 2012 the group lost some of its steam and, while it still met, was essentially dormant.

“I said, ‘Hey, we have to keep this legacy going,’” said Ballard, a Long Beach educator, community organizer and mother of three boys.

Soon after, in a you-want-it-you-got-it turn of events, Ballard found herself as president of the nonprofit Heritage Society.

“Nicole has the vision and energy and reminds me a lot of my mother,” Chamberlain said. “Nicole is a symbol of the spirit of my mom.”

In Moore, who recently took over as senior librarian at Burnett, Ballard said she has found a strong advocate.

It was Moore who suggested and arranged moving the collection into its own room, formerly housing the library’s Teen Center, giving it more space and visibility.

The signage is supposed to change any time now.

“She’s got really good energy,” Chamberlain said of Moore, adding that the librarian personally moved the collection into its new space as soon as it was approved.

“She’s got a go-get-it spirit,” said Chamberlain, who is on the Heritage Society board.

Ballard said her first year at the helm of the Heritage Society and the collection was about organization and house cleaning. Now she is looking to get the word out about the collection and its new space within Burnett.

Nicole Ballard, of the African American Historical Society, looks through hundreds of books of a collection of African-American literature at the Burnett Library in Long Beach, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

At noon, on Saturday, March 21, the African American Heritage Society and Long Beach Public Library Foundation, will celebrate the collection and its new space with a ribbon cutting and related events.

Ballard said, her goal is to increase interest and use of the collection and the area in the library for events.

“What I would love to see is for this space to be used,” she said. “All these books are available online and I’d like to see increased circulation and awareness.”

Williams said that although myriad titles related to Black history are available throughout the library system, it is valuable to have a dedicated space such as the Resource Center where library patrons can peruse.

Chamberlain says sometimes patrons may not know exactly what they want.

“I think it’s important just to have an area where people can find things and learn or research,” she said. “We’re just hoping it’s an area where people can walk around and learn.”

Williams said that the library has also set aside money that will be dedicated to the resource center.

“Shiloh will have the opportunity to grow that collection and receive titles so that the collection will continue to grow,” Williams said.

One of the goals of organizers is not to have it look like grandma’s bookshelf.

“It is very dated,” Ballard said. “We have to keep it fresh and alive.”

As a result, the library and Resource Center are looking to add newer titles and different media. Ballard showed two of the newest additions. One was “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” by Zora Neale Hurston. Printed in 2018, 58 years after Hurston’s death, the book is based on interviews in 1927 with Cudjoe Lewis, the last surviving member of a ship of slaves smuggled into the U.S. in the 1860s.

The other is “Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices In Opera,” which traces the history of classical black singing through emancipation in politics and society and leading into stardom for performers such as Marian Anderson.

Also important to Ballard and Chamberlain is the location of Burnett Library in the heart of the Central Area of Long Beach.

“When (the collection) began in 1997, the Sixth District was the hub of the African-American community. The neighborhood feel of the library still exists,” Ballard said. “This is one of the hidden jewels of the Sixth District”

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