Remembering Five Black Librarians from Saint Paul

Noah, a library associate at the Highland Park Library, recently enjoyed researching and learning about these five women and shared his findings. Here is what he discovered.

We can only speculate, but these women were all connected socially and most likely knew each other as young adults, through shared ties to the Hallie Q. Brown House, Credjafawn Social Club and other organizations, and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. More social context can be found in the St. Paul Recorder/Minneapolis Spokesman archive at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.

Beatrice Inez Schuck (1920-1982, later Reed and Bailey) grew up on Rondo Street. She graduated from Central High School in 1936, and in 1940 she was the first Black Minnesotan to graduate from the library science program at the University of Minnesota. She worked at the Sumner Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library for a short time (and possibly at SPPL’s St. Anthony Park branch as well), then went on to work as a librarian at Tillotson College in Austin, Texas (1940-42); Virginia Union University in Richmond (1942-44); and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (1944-46). Afterward she returned to Saint Paul, and received another bachelor’s degree cum laude from the U of M’s College of Science, Literature and the Arts in 1956. She was hired by the Saint Paul Public Library in 1961, and became supervisor of the Science and Industry Room at the Central Library. She served in that role and was active in the Minnesota Library Association until her retirement in 1982.

Vivian Myrtle Vassar (1921-2016, later Redd) also grew up in the Rondo neighborhood. She graduated from Mechanic Arts High School, attended Macalester College, and graduated from the U of M in 1943, with a degree in library science. She worked for Saint Paul Public Library for several years before becoming a librarian at the Wayne County Library in Michigan, and later a school librarian at Pattengill Elementary in Detroit.

Elizabeth McCracken (1922-1988, later McGee) grew up on Albemarle St in Saint Paul’s North End. She graduated from Washington High School in 1939, and the University of Minnesota in 1943 with a B.S. in library science. She was hired by the Dayton Public Library in Ohio, and worked there for 12 years as a children’s librarian. (Her husband James H. McGee would become the first Black mayor of Dayton, Ohio, holding office from 1970-82.)

Barbara “Petey” Vassar (1932-, later Gray), Vivian’s younger sister, also graduated from Mechanic Arts and the U of M, and received a library degree from the College of St. Catherine in 1954. Passed over at age 16 for a library page position with Saint Paul Public Library in favor of a less qualified white applicant, she took up the matter personally with library director Perrie Jones, and was hired a few days later. She worked for SPPL for a time, then moved to the Detroit Public Library, where she rose through the ranks: heading the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in association with the Library of Congress; coordinating reference and interlibrary loan for the county library; and eventually becoming assistant director of the tri-county Wayne-Oakland Library Federation. “I had twenty-five libraries. I had four departments. I was head of the personnel department, the labor relations... I was chief library negotiator for all the union contracts and things.”

Laura Jeffrey (1915-2003) grew up on Burgess St in the North End. She graduated from Macalester in 1935 with a degree in education, intending to become a teacher, but “they wouldn’t hire me to teach in the Saint Paul Public Schools. A little later they were going to hire a Black teacher – just one.” She started working for SPPL’s Central Library in 1951, and became acting head of the Arlington branch a few years later. “I decided that if I was doing the job, I might as well get the degree and have the title.” She attended classes at the U of M while working full-time at the library and got her degree in 1958. The next year she became the librarian at the St. Anthony Park branch; later she was the manager of the Highland Park branch until her retirement in the late 1970s. Laura Jeffrey Academy was founded in 2008 and named in her honor.