The Charleston County Public Library system has officially existed for just about eighty-seven years, but this week we’re celebrating the 90th anniversary of our oldest branch. In the autumn of 1927, Susan Dart Butler opened a free library in a building known as Dart Hall in downtown Charleston, and the present Dart Library is hosting a celebratory event this Saturday to commemorate ninety years of service to the community. In honor of this milestone, I’d like to share with you a brief history of the Dart library, as told by its founder.
But first a bit of background about Susan Dart Butler and her family here in Charleston.
John Lewis Dart was born in Charleston in 1854 as what was then called a “free person of color.” He received his early education at the Avery Normal Institute, then a private school, and in the 1870s embarked on a career as a teacher. After graduating from Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts in 1882, he became a Baptist minister and returned to Charleston in 1886 to serve at Morris Street Baptist Church. In 1887 he married Julia Pierre of Washington D.C., and their first child, Susan, was born in 1888.
The members of the Dart family placed a high value on reading and education, both at home and within their community. In the early 1890s, while white authorities were pushing for greater racial segregation in South Carolina, Rev. Dart lobbied for equal funding for the education of African-American children in urban Charleston. When city leaders ignored his pleas, Rev. Dart campaigned to raise money to start his own school. The Charleston Industrial Institute opened on Kracke Street in 1895 with a mission to provide a fundamental education and vocational training to the black children of Charleston’s north side. The school proved so successful that Rev. Dart and his partners purchased additional land and expanded its facilities. On Thanksgiving Day 1899, a large crowd gathered at the southwest corner of Kracke and Bogard Streets for the dedication of Dart Hall, a large, two-story wooden building that housed classrooms, offices, and, by 1905, a printing press for the publication of a black-owned newspaper, the Southern Reporter.
Even after opening his own school, John Dart continued to pressure civic authorities to provide both the funding and the facilities needed for the education of African-American children in urban Charleston. In 1910 the City Council of Charleston finally relented, and in 1911 a new, city-sponsored brick building for the Charleston Industrial School opened on Fishburne Street. In 1921, that school was renamed Burke Industrial School, and is now called Burke High School.
Meanwhile, the Reverend John Lewis Dart passed away in 1915. After his death, and after the new Burke Industrial School was up and running, the large wooden building at the corner of Kracke and Bogard Streets known as Dart Hall continued to serve as a hub for the black community. Most importantly for our story, Rev. Dart’s large personal library still occupied the shelves of his office at Dart Hall, but only family members had access to the books. That’s where the story of the creation of the Dart Hall Library begins.
Susan Dart was born in Charleston in 1888 and received her early education at the Avery Institute. She left home to study at Atlanta University, and then attended the McDowell Millinery School in Boston. While employed as a hat maker in that city, she married Nathaniel Lowe Butler (1882–1948) in 1912. The couple then settled in Charleston, where their only son, Nathaniel Dart Butler, was born in 1918.
At this point I’ll let Susan Dart Butler tell her own story, in her own words. In October of 1952, she sat down at a typewriter and began crafting a summary of her work with the library she had started in 1927. She titled this essay, “Making A Way To Start A Library.” A slightly revised version was published in the Charleston News and Courier on 22 December 1952, but I’m going to read directly from Mrs. Butler’s typescript, which we have in the archive at CCPL. I’ve also added a few annotations to help identify some of the characters.
Making A Way To Start A Library
In the fall of 1925, after making a quick survey of libraries or book shelves in schools and churches of Charleston, I found there was very little to report on the number or kind of books in those bookcases.
The Interracial Committee of the Y.W.C.A. [the “colored branch” at 106 Coming Street] around that time heard a report from Clelia P. McGowan [, chair of the South Carolina chapter of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation,] on an interracial meeting held in Atlanta [in April 1925]. She brought the information that the Rosenwald Foundation [, a prominent philanthropic organization of that era,] was interested in getting a library started for colored people.
Upon being appointed chairman, I selected a small committee to gather information for the survey and also make plans for starting a library [to serve Charleston’s black community]. Early in the spring of 1926, the committee reported the few books found were poor and of no value. Reports of progress on how we could collect books and where we would house them for a public reading room and library were made.
There was a real need for such a project and it was ever before me. One cold night before this survey was made, a young high school girl attending Avery [Avery Institute, a private school for black children at 125 Bull Street] came to my house to inquire as to whether I had the poems of Shelley and Keats and their biographies.
My father, the Reverend J. L. Dart, had collected a large number of books for his library and I knew these books were among them. The girl went with me to his library, which was on the first floor of Dart Hall and used at that time by my husband as an office, since the passing of my father in 1915.
The room was very cold, but the girl said she did not mind the cold. She would rather sit there and read because at her home, a small cottage, there were her sister’s young children playing and older folks talking which made it hard for her to concentrate on her work.
This picture was always in front of my eyes. I knew her situation and thought of many others like her. Where could we start the reading room? The only room suitable was a small one at Dart Hall called the printing office. The floor and walls were inky and there were several holes cut in the floor for belts which turn the newspaper press of the Southern Reporter.
Small amounts of money raised from parties; a dance[,] and a Spirituals concert given by the students of Avery school helped to buy lumber for a new floor. The walls were white washed and shelves built for the more suitable books from my father’s library. Later books were sent through Mrs. McGowan and an automobile load was given by the late Mrs. Samuel Stoney [Louisa Cheves Smythe Stoney, 1868–1939] from her Medway Plantation house.
The work to make the reading room comfortable was accomplished by the labor of my husband who also was interested in helping people to improve their condition.
My mother [Julia Pierre Dart, 1865–1952], a co-worker with me, had spent over fifty years here working with my father in church, community and educational work. She gave me the use of the printing shop in Dart Hall which was opened in the fall of 1927 as a library and reading room.
When books came I was at a loss to know what to do with them. After visiting libraries in Atlanta, West Virginia, Durham, Tuskegee, Washington, D. C. and the Charleston Library Society on King Street, the books were shelved alphabetically. Later with the help of two young ladies, who were college juniors at home for the summer, we classified them as fiction and non-fiction.
After teaching kindergarten which meant playing with thirty or more children during the morning hours, I spent three hours, five to eight P.M., on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the library and reading room. A few high school students would come in looking up their English assignments or someone’s biography.
It seemed to me, however, that I had started something people were afraid of. They did not come in to visit or to see what was going on in this room. “I have a book and do not need any others to read.” Such were the remarks I heard about the library.
On many of these afternoons my son [Nathaniel Dart Butler, 1918–1938], who was about nine or ten years old, was my companion and inspiration. He dearly loved books and he often brought the neighborhood boys in to look at the books and pictures. If there was an older boy in the group who could read he was asked to do so and if none of the boys read so well he would ask me to read to them. This did not last very long because he soon learned to read and discuss the authors, books and styles of writing.
My son learned the library service and was very helpful at the desk and with reference questions.
One day [in late February 1929] we had some very distinguished gentlemen from Atlanta to visit the library; they were Mr. Edwin Embree [president of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation], Mr. Clark Foreman and Mr. Howell [William B. Harrell, secretary of the Rosewald Foundation]. They were interested in our library and pleased with the collection of books covering such a variety as [sic; of] subjects. [In a version of this text published in Charleston News and Courier, 22 December 1952, page 14, Mrs. Butler added this sentence: “They were also very interested in the work of Mrs. Alice LaSaine [1886–1957] in getting books to county residents."]
Mr. Embree who represented the Julius Rosenwald Foundation was interested in public libraries and a five-year plan was discussed with Charleston County officials. People talked about and visited the [Dart Hall] library from that day on.
The Charleston Museum under Miss Laura M. Bragg [1881–1978] housed a fine collection of children's books.
It was about 1930 that the agreement was made between the city officials and the Rosenwald Foundation that Charleston County would have a Free Library for all people.
Books were selected, purchased and processed. Books for children and adults, for young readers and for teachers arrived, while the library at the museum enlarged their space to receive them and prepared for the opening of the Charleston County Free Library in January, 1931.
Many of the books in the [Dart Hall] Library and Reading room were for adults and high school students use. They had to be classified and cataloged. Because of this the [Dart Hall] library was closed to the students in the fall of 1930 after four years as my project.
We began preparing for the great day. The little reading room expanded. Three rooms twice its size were added with shelves on all sides full of beautiful new books. The children’s books were especially pretty and attractive.
On Sunday afternoon, July 31, 1951 [sic; 1931], a program was given in Dart Hall before a large audience. Several speeches were heard after which the people were invited to visit the Dart Hall Branch of the Charleston Free Library. That was a great day for children and adults.
During the summer of 1932, I took a course in library science at Hampton Institute, Va.
It has given me great pleasure to watch the progress that those children who are the adults of today have made. They grew up in this library. They graduated from school, finished college and returned home with B. S. and M.A. degrees. One even has a Ph.D. When they are here they still remember and come to Dart Hall Library. One young man returned after his college education and taught in one of the high schools here. He was one of the dependable leaders in our Great Books discussion group last year.
Many students who grew up using the library are teachers here today. They have for the past five years contributed to a fund for the purchase of professional books required by the Extension Department of the South Carolina A. & M. College [now South Carolina State University] at Orangeburg.
A collection of several hundred very fine books valued at more than $5,000 were donated to the Dart Hall Library. It is said to be one of the best professional collections in any public library in our state. We are very grateful to these principals and teachers who made gifts of books to this library.
Note [:] This short history of the Dart Branch was written at the request of the League of Women Voters who collected the data and information for the study of the Charleston County Free Library.
During these past years I have tried to serve the children and adults of this county, helping them to help themselves by reading and using good books.
Writeen [sic] October 22, 1952 by
Susan Dart Butler, Librarian
Dart Hall Branch, Charleston County Free Library
After twenty years of running Dart Hall Library, Susan Dart Butler retired in May of 1957. She died two years later, in June of 1959, but she has not been forgotten. On Saturday, 9 December 2017, Dart family and friends will gather to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Mrs. Butler’s inspirational work, and also the legacy of her father, at the modern library that bears his name. The John L. Dart branch library opened in December 1968 at 1067 King Street, as a replacement for the aging Dart Hall building that once stood at the corner of Kracke and Bogard Streets.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood this Saturday, or any day, I encourage you to drop by the Dart library and bear witness to the fruits of Susan Dart Butler’s hard work and her remarkable dedication to the cause of equal access to the tools of literacy and education.