Not So Famous North Carolinians: Mollie Huston Lee
Mollie Huston Lee was born on January 18, 1907 in Columbus, Ohio, where her father was a businessman and politician. She grew up in an educated household with many books available to her.
When she attended Howard University, she worked as a student library assistant to Edward Christopher Williams, the first African American professional librarian in the nation. After graduating from Howard University, she attended library school at Columbia University on a scholarship.
After graduating from Columbia in 1930, she moved to North Carolina to begin working as a librarian at Shaw University. She was instrumental in organizing the North Carolina Negro Library Association in 1934. It became the first association controlled by blacks to be admitted as a chapter of the American Library Association.
While working at Shaw, she saw a need in the black community for an African American literature collection, and realized that this could best be met through the services of a public library.
But in 1935 there were only twelve black public libraries in North Carolina, and the Olivia Raney Library in Raleigh only served white citizens. So Lee and a group of community members met with the white mayor George A. Isley to start a public library that would serve blacks.
As a result of these discussions, the Richard B. Harrison Public Library opened on November 12, 1935 with 860 books on the first floor of the Delany-Evans Building (also known as the Dental Building as upstairs it housed the first two black dentists in Raleigh). I am sure few customers of the Remedy Diner at 133 E. Hargett Street realize that they are eating at the site of the first library for African American citizens in Raleigh.
In an interview in 1981 Lee said “I started it because Negroes didn’t have anywhere to go to get books. I had to work very hard to get the people to use the library in the beginning. I’d take a market basket up and down the street passing out books. The Negroes didn’t know what a library was or what it was for.”
The library was named for the famous actor Richard Berry Harrison who had died in March of 1935. Harrison, the son of fugitive slaves, was born on September 28, 1864 in London, Ontario, Canada, and had taught elocution and dramatics courses at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro.
Lee offered the first library outreach in town, walking with her book basket in hand to various offices and local businesses to distribute her books and materials. Here she is in 1941 providing library services to the patients of St. Agnes Hospital, Raleigh’s hospital for blacks.
With strong community support, funds were raised in 1948 to purchase a house on Blount Street, and the Richard B. Harrison Library moved to a larger location.
In addition to establishing a library and services for African Americans in Raleigh, Lee also assisted in the training of future librarians. Library science students from Atlanta University, North Carolina Central University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill learned from firsthand experiences at the Harrison Library under the direction of Mollie Huston Lee. She also served as the supervisor of Negro School Libraries in North Carolina from 1946 to 1953. Lee was known as a “librarian’s librarian.”
In June 1967, the library moved to its current location on New Bern Avenue, where it houses the Mollie Huston Lee Collection, a special non-circulating collection of African American reference material. Ranging from adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction, serials, pamphlets, and vertical file materials, this collection grew gradually but steadily during the thirty-eight years Lee served as librarian at the Harrison Library and now contains over 5,000 volumes. When she retired in 1972, the “Negro Collection” was renamed the Mollie Huston Lee Collection of Black Literature.
She died in 1982.