Cooper River Memorial Library
Friday, April 21, 2023 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Charleston County’s newest learning hub, the Keith Summey North Charleston Library, replaces a smaller facility erected more than seventy years earlier at the corner of Rivers Avenue and Dorchester Road. The new 20,000-square-foot building retains elements of the earlier library, created as a memorial for local men and women lost during World War II. That segregated structure was later enlarged and eventually integrated to serve a diverse and expanding community. To commemorate the opening of the new facility, let’s recall the genesis and evolution of its predecessor, the former Cooper River Memorial Library.

Named for the long-serving mayor of the City of North Charleston, the Keith Summey North Charleston Library is an attractive, comfortable, and welcoming resource for the people of Charleston County. Because the new building incorporates vestiges of an earlier structure, however, it provides visitors with a tangible connection to a very different and less inclusive era of the community’s past. To properly understand and acknowledge the legacy of the former library at this site, it’s necessary to recall the historical context in which it arose nearly a century ago.



When the Charleston Free Library (now Charleston County Public Library) commenced in 1931, the institution held few assets and no real estate. Its early officers negotiated with organizations and businesses across the county to rent or borrow space within existing buildings, in which the Free Library placed circulating collections of books tended by part-time employees. The system’s first “main branch,” for example, was just a suite of rooms within the old Charleston Museum in Thomson Park. During the 1930s and 1940s, library officials created a network of similarly-temporary facilities across the broad coastal county, ranging from McClellanville at the northeastern tip to Edisto to the far southwest. The Free Library also extended its reach beyond various fixed locations by establishing a fleet of bookmobiles to distribute books within the most rural communities (see Episode No. 196).

The mission of the Charleston Free Library was complicated during its early decades by the burden of racial segregation that prevailed in South Carolina and other Southern states. Local custom and “Jim Crow” laws enacted around the turn of the twentieth century required the county library to maintain separate facilities, separate book collections, and even separate bookmobiles to serve a population that was 54% African American and 46% White in 1930.[1] Despite the state and regional policy of providing separate but (un)equal public amenities to citizens Black and White, the Free Library allocated the vast majority of its resources to the use of White citizens, who formed a narrow majority in the 1940 census of Charleston County for the first time in recorded history.[2]

As the Free Library matured and its budget gradually increased, the institution began to acquire real estate and create permanent facilities for sustained public use. Most of its early capital was spent in downtown Charleston, where the majority of the county’s population resided during the first half of the twentieth century, while money slowly trickled to the more sparsely-populated areas of the county. In the unincorporated “North Area” beyond the U.S. Navy Yard, for example, citizens waited for itinerate bookmobiles or visited the White-only, temporary branches occupying borrowed space within the Park Circle neighborhood in 1936–41 and again in 1946–52.[3]

The first effort to create a permanent public library in North Charleston commenced in the aftermath of World War II, but the plan did not originate within the boardroom of the Free Library. During the last months of the war in the spring of 1945, citizens across the community began to discuss possibilities for a public memorial to the men and women of Charleston County who served in the armed forces during the recent conflict. A proposal to replace the Free Library’s insufficient main branch at 94 Rutledge Avenue with a new memorial library gained broad support, but the idea was abandoned because of the poor prospect of obtaining a sufficient building site within urban Charleston.[4] Nevertheless, the concept of a memorial library resonated with a citizen living in the North Area near the Charleston Naval Shipyard, a veteran of the First World War whose children had served in the recent international conflict.

During the winter of 1945–46, this anonymous veteran proposed to fellow members of various local civic groups the idea of creating a modest memorial library in their North Charleston neighborhood. Officers of the Suburban Junior Chamber of Commerce, or “Jaycees,” a group of young businessmen residing in the vicinity of the Naval Shipyard, embraced the concept and pledged to help bring it to fruition. At the same time, the unidentified originator of the project drafted a plan for raising the necessary funds, forming a non-profit holding company, and partnering with the existing Charleston Free Library to operate the proposed facility. He also identified a suitable building site at the southwest corner of Dorchester Road and an unnamed “dual highway” that later became Rivers Avenue. The property in question formed part of the grounds of Pinehaven Hospital, which the Charleston County Tuberculosis Association had acquired from the City of Charleston in 1924. Following an informal conversation between the officers of the Suburban Jaycees and the officers of the Tuberculosis Association, the owners agreed in principle to convey approximately three-quarters of an acre to a future organization for the purpose of building a memorial library.[5]

Also during the early weeks of 1946, the officers of the Suburban Jaycees conferred with Emily Sanders, director of the Charleston Free Library, about the possibility of creating a partnership with the existing county-wide library system. The parties soon agreed that the Jaycees (or a similar organization yet to be incorporated) would fund the construction of the building, the installation of equipment and furniture, the purchase of book stock, and retain title to the property. After the library’s completion, they would invite the Charleston Free Library to operate the facility as a public branch serving the area’s White citizens.

Miss Sanders, on behalf of the county library system, embraced the plan and joined the Jaycee officers in a presentation to their chapter membership on 6 March 1946. On that evening, the Suburban Jaycees formally adopted a plan to raise funds to construct a library in the North Area as a memorial to the service men and women of the “Cooper River District” (referring to the local public school district). Three weeks later, the Jaycees voted to elevate the library plan to their “major project of this year” and established a committee to coordinate its promotion. The group estimated that the proposed library would cost approximately $25,000 to build and would contain approximately 8,000 books. Plans to launch a fund-raising drive in June were scuttled by poor “economic conditions,” however, and the drive was postponed for many months.[6]

Meanwhile, the Jaycees contacted an architect with experience designing libraries, Lloyd Greer of Valdosta, Georgia, who provided plans for a building without charge. To raise the funds necessary to initiate a public fund-raising campaign within the community, local Jaycee Arthur H. Burton arranged for the raffle of a new automobile in connection with the final football game of the North Charleston High School Blue Devils’ 1946 season, which raised nearly $4,000.[7]

In late January 1947, the Suburban Jaycees announced plans to conduct a house-to-house campaign in the “North Area” in February to solicit funds to construct “a memorial public library in the Cooper River district.” The group had already embarked on an “advance gifts campaign” within the community, and had recruited fifteen other civic groups from the area to help meet their goal of raising $30,000 in the upcoming fund drive. Edward P. Blanton, chairman of the Jaycee’s promotional committee, confidently stated “that most of our citizens are ready and anxious to back any undertaking that contributes to the educational and cultural progress of the community.” The library was to serve the White residents of the North Area, but the Jaycees sought “the help of all the people of Charleston County.” In return for the support of the broader community, said Mr. Blanton, “we guarantee that the completed library will be a monument both to those whom it honors and those who made it possible.”[8]

The week-long, house-to-house fund drive commenced on 4 February 1947. The organizers hoped to secure “an average of one dollar per white person in the district” for a memorial library in which “every white resident of the district will be eligible to borrow books and otherwise use the library’s facilities.”[9] The campaign coincided with a week of unusually frigid weather, however, which limited the success of the volunteer canvassers. Contributions fell far short of the projected goal, but the Jaycees pledged to continue their solicitations and reassured the community that “the library will be built.”[10]

In June 1947, members of the Suburban Jaycees and other civic organizations in the community filed a petition with the state government to incorporate a new non-profit entity called “The Cooper River District Memorial Library Association” (CRDMLA). According to its charter, the association was formed for “maintaining and operating a library and other educational and cultural facilities as a memorial to those who gave their service and lives in World War II.”[11] Several months later, the trustees of the CRDMLA applied to the state legislators representing Charleston County (the antecedent of modern Charleston County Council), who obtained additional funds for the library project through the South Carolina General Assembly’s annual appropriation to the county.[12]

With approximately $19,000 at their disposal, the CRDMLA decided to abandon the building plans provided by Lloyd Greer of Georgia. They engaged a Charleston architect, Augustus Constantine, who drafted plans for a more economical building. The association published a call for construction bids in the autumn of 1947, and awarded the contract to George M. Canady on October 16th. The proposed building was described at that time as “a structure of brick and hollow tile [i.e., masonry block], with concrete foundation and floors,” one story in height, decorated with “wrought iron and letters of aluminum.”[13]

Legal obstacles delayed the transfer of title for the land at the corner of Rivers Avenue and Dorchester Road, but Charleston City Council resolved the issue in November 1947 and the Charleston County Tuberculosis Association completed its sale to the CRDMLA.[14] Construction of the memorial library commenced with a ground-breaking ceremony on 7 January 1948. The CRDMLA then launched a new campaign to raise funds to purchase equipment, furniture, and approximately 6,000 books for the new facility.[15] Builders completed the structure’s exterior in October 1948 and then rushed to finish the interior before the end of the year.[16]

The Cooper River Memorial Library, completed at a cost of approximately $35,000, formally opened to the public on 29 December 1948. A newspaper preview advised visitors that they would find it “decidedly different from the usual style of public libraries. The shelving, furniture, reading tables and other fixtures, manufactured especially for the building, are of modernistic design. The shelves line the walls instead of being in rows. The charging desk is at the left of the entrance and the entire floor space is left open for reading tables and chairs.”[17] The nearly-square structure contained approximately 2,500 square feet of finished space, with a red brick exterior facing Rivers Avenue to the north and a parking lot to the south.

One month after the library’s official opening, officers of the Cooper River District Memorial Library Association and other civic organizations gathered at the new facility to complete their mission. On 23 January 1949, members of the American Legion, North Charleston Memorial Post No. 59, dedicated the building by unveiling an interior tablet inscribed with the following text: “This tablet is placed here in memory of the men and women of Cooper River District who died in service during World War II.”[18]

In the years after the opening of the library, the CRDMLA owned and maintained the building while staff of the Charleston Free Library provided services within. Public use of the facility increased rapidly, despite its exclusion of a significant proportion of the local population. African-American readers living in the North Area during the 1950s were obliged to wait for the itinerate “Negro bookmobile” or visit the county’s principal “Negro branch,” the John L. Dart Library on Kracke Street in downtown Charleston.[19]

Meanwhile, the owners of the Memorial Library began planning its expansion in 1955. By selling a portion of the lot at the corner of Rivers Avenue and Dorchester Road, the CRDMLA raised funds sufficient to “practically double” the size of the building. Construction commenced in the late summer of 1957 and finished early the next year, with little interruption to the library’s normal operation. The work extended the building southward, creating a rectangular structure clad with a matching veneer of red brick. White patrons visiting the 5,000 square-foot library in 1958 also enjoyed the addition of air conditioning during their summer reading programs.[20]

Like many other facilities in contemporary South Carolina, the Cooper River Memorial Library did not include any posted signage explicitly reserving the facility for the use of White citizens, or explicitly denying the entry of African Americans. Rather, the building’s status was tacitly understood by members of the community, who were accustomed to the practice of unequal segregation of schools, theaters, hospitals, parks, buses, trains, and other venues. The racial integration of this and other public libraries in Charleston County unfolded slowly over the course of the mid-twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement, beginning with the opening of a new main branch at 404 King Street. That event in November 1960 marked the dawn of a new era in Charleston, and sparked some controversy, because the new library provided equal and integrated access to the facilities, collections, and services.[21]

The long-standing tradition of segregation at other public libraries in Charleston County began to disintegrate after the opening of the new main branch in 1960. By 1962, administrators of the Free Library system were listening to a Civil Rights Advisory Committee, which apparently recommended the gradual and rather quiet erasure of traditional restrictions.[22] There was no fanfare to celebrate this momentous change in policy; in consequence, it’s difficult to trace the chronology of the library’s integration. In August 1963, for example, library director Emily Sanders reported that a “large number” of African American citizens had recently visited various branches across the county, but few in North Charleston. At that time, Sanders noted the presence of “only one or two ever in Cooper River Memorial.”[23]

African Americans living in the North Area did not immediately flock to the library at the corner of Dorchester Road and Rivers Avenue in the mid-1960s. Years of experience with segregation fostered feelings of distrust and apprehension. Hester McFadden, a native of the historic Liberty Hill community nearby, recalls being one of the few Black children using the Cooper River Memorial Library at that time. A voracious reader during high school, Hester first visited the building in 1965 and received an unfriendly welcome. The White staff and patrons stared silently as she chose a seat at a wooden table and the rose to explore the library’s history section. Enthralled by the wealth of books to feed her imagination, Hester did not see the librarian place thumbtacks in her chair. After she carried an armful of books back to the table and sat down, the staff and patrons laughed at her pain and humiliation. Undaunted by their ignorance, Hester held her ground and focused on reading. She did not return to the Cooper River Library for some time, but Mrs. McFadden’s life-long passion for learning fueled her success in the face of outdated prejudice and discrimination.[24]

The increasingly integrated use of the Cooper River branch during the late 1960s inspired its community partners to plan a fifty-percent-expansion of its footprint.[25] In contrast to the private fundraising venture that paid for its initial construction in the 1940s, and the sale of private property that funded the 1957 expansion, the owners and operators of the library asked Charleston County Council to pay for the necessary improvements. Council was amenable to the request, but required an alteration of the existing relationship. To facilitate the application of public funds for the new construction, the surviving trustees of the Cooper River District Memorial Library Association conveyed ownership of the property to Charleston County Council in June 1973.[26] The library on Rivers Avenue closed in the spring of 1974 while workers remodeled the interior and added a pair of brick wings to the north and south sides of the building, clad in the same red brick veneer. The resulting structure, now encompassing 7,850 square feet, reopened to the public on 19 December 1974.[27]

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the staff and patrons seen within the Cooper River Memorial Library more accurately reflected the diversity of the community it served. The rapid growth of the North Area during the 1980s inspired the Charleston County Public Library, in partnership with county government, to build two large “regional” libraries in North Charleston, on Otranto Road and Dorchester Road, both of which opened in 1992. CCPL continued to maintain and improve the Cooper River library into the twenty-first century, by which time the aging facility was due for a major renovation. Following the success of a 2014 referendum to raise $108.5 million for library construction, CCPL began planning its replacement. 

The seventy-three-year-old Cooper River Memorial Library officially closed on 27 April 2021 to facilitate the erection of a larger building at the same site. After removing the “wings” added to the east and west facades in 1974, builders stripped and remodeled the 5,000-square-foot shell of the original 1948 structure and its 1957 extension. To the northwest of that historic fabric, builders added 15,000 square feet of new amenities, including community rooms, dedicated children and teen spaces, a learning lab, creative studio, and a tall, spacious lobby drenched in natural light. The new Keith Summey North Charleston Library (KSNC) opened on 20 April 2023 with ceremonies, programs, and a conversation with Hester McFadden and welcome friends from the Liberty Hill community.

Visitors entering the new library from the south will see a large and colorful display in the lobby that encapsulates the history of the old facility it replaces. Along with vintage photographs, newspaper clippings, and maps, the attractive display includes drawers containing a few choice artifacts from the 1948 library. The memorial tablet installed in January 1949 is still on display, but now in the children’s wing, attached to a wall erected in 1957.[28]

The trustees and staff of the Charleston County Public Library system and all of its community partners are proud to welcome visitors to the new KSNC library at 3503 Rivers Avenue—the intersection of past, present, and future in North Charleston.


[1] According to the Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930: Population, Volume 3, Part 2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1932), 789, the population of Charleston County included 54,812 people of African descent, 46,129 people identified as “White,” and a total of forty people of Native American, Asian, and Hispanic ancestry.

[2] According to the Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940: Population, Volume 2, Part 6 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1943), 376, the population of Charleston County included 61,487 people identified as “White,” 59,573 people of African descent, and forty-five people of “other races.”

[3] Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 4 October 1946; 29 January 1952; “Cooper River Memorial Library: Celebrating 50 Years of Service, November 18 1948–1998,” photoduplicated booklet assembled by CCPL staff, held within the Charleston Archive at CCPL, unnumbered pages.

[4] Charleston News and Courier, 28 June 1945, page 1, “President of Exchange Club Announces County War Memorial Committee Formed”; Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 23 October 1945.

[5] Charleston Evening Post, 28 December 1948, page 6, “Memorial Library Opens Tomorrow.”

[6] News and Courier, 6 March 1946, page 3, “Suburban Jaycees To Talk Library Plan”; News and Courier, 7 March 1946, page 5, “Suburban Jaycees Approve Memorial Library Project”; Charleston Evening Post, 28 March 1946, page 2, “Suburban Jaycees Plan Drive for Memorial Library”; Evening Post, 24 April 1946, page 6, “Plans for Library Fund Drive to be Completed May 10”; Evening Post, 28 December 1948, page 6, “Memorial Library Opens Tomorrow.”

[7] Evening Post, 28 December 1948, page 6, “Memorial Library Opens Tomorrow.”

[8] News and Courier, 31 January 1947, page 7, “Blanton Confident Memorial Library Drive to Succeed.”

[9] News and Courier, 2 February 1947, page 13, “Memorial Library Campaign Response Reported to be Good”; News and Courier, 4 February 1947, page 7, “Be Ready.”

[10] News and Courier, 8 February 1947, page 12, “Library Campaign Success Assured, Blanton Declares.”

[11] Evening Post, 6 June 1947, page 21, “Notice”; Evening Post, 7 June 1947, page 9, “Plans for North Area Library Are Perfected.” A copy of the certificate of incorporation appears in a 1998 compilation of materials relating to the history of this library. The founding officers of the CRDMLA were Edward P. Blanton, president; G. Stacy Carter, Jr., vice-president; Gordon H. Garrett, Treasurer; Charles D. Hoffecker, Sr., secretary; and trustees Arthur Burton, R. E. Zipperer, Wilbur L. Spruill, Daniel Likes, William L. Califf, Ira I. Bledsoe, and Mrs. William M. Leach.

[12] Evening Post, 30 April 1948, page 6B, “Campaign to Start Soon for Funds to Buy Books for Memorial Library.”

[13] News and Courier, 7 October 1947, page 1B, “Cooper River Library Bids Due October 15”; News and Courier, 17 October 1947, page 8B, “Geo. M. Canady Low Bidder on New Library.”

[14] Proceedings of Charleston City Council, 11 November 1947, printed in Evening Post, 18 November 1947, page 5B.

[15] See 1973 typescript summary of the history of the Cooper River Memorial Library, held within the Charleston Archive at CCPL, unnumbered pages; Evening Post, 30 April 1948, page 6B, “Campaign to Start Soon for Funds to Buy Books for Memorial Library”; News and Courier, 21 September 1948, page 16, “James Island Negro School Approved by Delegation.”

[16] Evening Post, 16 November 1948, page 12A, “Suburban Review.”

[17] Evening Post, 28 December 1948, page 6, “Memorial Library Opens Tomorrow.”

[18] News and Courier, 7 January 1949, page 21, “Dedication Date To Be Set For Library Monday”; Evening Post, 24 January 1949, page 12A, “Memorial Library For North Area Is Dedicated.”

[19] For more information about this topic, see “Charleston County’s Mobile Library Service, 1931–2021,” Charleston Time Machine Episode No. 196.

[20] Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 2 April 1957; Evening Post, 27 September 1957, page 11, “North Area Library Is Being Enlarged”; 1973 report.

[21] Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 29 June 1960, 13 December 1960; News and Courier, 22 December 1960.

[22] Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 22 October 1962.

[23] Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 6 August 1963.

[24] Personal communication with Hester McFadden, 18 April 2023; public program with Mrs. McFadden at the Keith Summey North Charleston Library, 20 April 2023.

[25] News and Courier, 26 June 1969, page 1-B, “Capital Improvements Plan Outlined to County Council”; Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 30 July 1969.

[26] Minutes of the CCPL board of trustees, 24 July 1973.

[27] North Charleston Banner, 23 December 1974, page 6.

[28] During this project, I had the pleasure of working with the talented team from HW Exhibits, who designed and fabricated the history display in the lobby of the KSNC library.


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