Nominations are now open for the 2017 WNBA Award and so, in honor of the award and of Black History Month, we’re running a spotlight series on some of the groundbreaking women who impacted books and readership today, beginning with Charlemae Hill Rollins.
In 1970, Charlemae Hill Rollins became the first black woman to win the Women’s National Book Association Award. Born in Mississippi to a farmer and a teacher, she attended segregated schools in Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi, and Kansas before she graduated high school. She attended Howard University in Washington DC for a year before returning to Oklahoma and marrying Joseph Walter Rollins in 1918, shortly before he was stationed in Europe for a year.
The family, with their son Joseph Walter Rollins Jr., moved to Chicago, where Charlemae began her employment at the Chicago Public Library system in 1927 as a children’s librarian. The library funded her studies at Columbia University and at the University of Chicago, where she began working on a project which discussed the impact of racism in children’s books which was later published as a pamphlet entitled The Negro in Children’s Books. She began to push the library system to stop buying children’s books with racist characters as those books harmfully impacted young readers’ view on race and also started reaching out to publishers, imploring them to stop publishing books which offensively depicted black characters and to begin publishing accurate representations.
A second publication, We Build Together, continued to emphasize the importance of a shift in library and educational purchasing in regards to race—and the work made it further this time, published by the National Council of Teachers of English. Editors started seeking her opinion and adjusting the language in books to align with the ideals she promoted, she began teaching at Roosevelt University, and she was elected the first black president of the children’s division of the American Library Association in 1957.
She remained active in organizations which worked to fundamentally change literary portrayals of black characters even as she turned her focus toward writing children’s books herself, publishing several books and winning awards both for her books and her advocacy work. Some of the awards she received include the WNBA Award and the Coretta Scott King Award. Though Charlemae Hill Rollins died in 1979, her work—and her legacy—live on.
Stay tuned for the next Black History Month Spotlight on past WNBA Award winners. Read about Augusta Braxton Baker, a librarian from the New York Public Library system.