Honoring Montana’s first Black librarian

Carrying on the legacy of Alma Smith Jacobs requires representation and education.

 

Alma Smith Jacobs, the head librarian in Great Falls during the 1950s and 1960s.
Great Falls Tribune file photo

A larger-than-life mural of Alma Smith Jacobs graces the salmon-colored brick walls of the Great Falls Public Library. The mural describes Jacobs as a “community leader” and “civil rights activist.” As head librarian in Great Falls during the 1950s and 1960s, Jacobs persuaded the city to fund the construction of the city’s modern library — one of the few spaces where city residents of all ethnic backgrounds were welcome at the time.  She also expanded rural communities’ access by circulating the county’s roving bookmobile outside the city. In 1973, Jacobs was named state librarian, a role she served in for eight years.

Now, there’s a movement in Great Falls — Montana’s third-largest city and a former hydroelectric power hub on the banks of the Missouri River — to rename the public library after Jacobs in honor of her legacy. It’s spearheaded by the Alma Smith Jacobs Foundation, a community nonprofit that sprang from the city’s historically Black Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Kathy Reed, a longtime church member and special education teacher, grew up down the street from Jacobs and is one member of the Black community in Great Falls who hopes to see the library renamed.

High Country News sat down with Reed to discuss the legacy of Jacobs, who died in 1997, how the Civil Rights movement of her day translates to today’s movement for racial equality, and the place of symbolism and representation in combating racial prejudice. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy of Kathy Reed

High Country News: How would you describe Alma Jacobs’ legacy?

Kathy Reed: On a personal level, she was another person who I had an intimate relationship with that was focused on achievement — personal achievement. (She taught me how) taking a personal interest in people can motivate them or mentor them. As a community, it was getting that library. (It) was state-of-the-art when it first opened. That says to the community, “You deserve better. You deserve better, and you need to fight for what's better.”

HCN: You grew up down the street from Alma Smith Jacobs.  What was that like?

KR: She was just another adult in our life. We knew her from the church, and we knew her mother. It was a very formal relationship; we always called her “Mrs. Jacobs.” We always called her Mrs. Jacobs. But she was somebody we could go to for anything. My mom would say, “Run down the street to Mrs. Jacobs’ house. I need an onion, and she’s got one.”

To me, she was not a person on a pedestal. She was just someone who was in my life every day. She was kind of a role model, but it wasn’t until I got older that I (realized that) she was really a standout. It was a community neighborhood — you did things for your neighbors and you didn’t charge them. You shoveled your neighbor’s walk, raked their leaves, and you didn’t take money for it. That was what you were supposed to do.

HCN: What is the role of the Great Falls Public Library, then and now?

KR: (Jacobs) saw a desperate need for a library that would serve a population that was growing. And their current library wasn't doing that. She just felt it was so important for the development of the community. She had a tenacity about her personality, and so she was not going to let it go. She continued to remind, prod and push the idea of a beautiful library for the community until it got done. When that library opened, it was fancy — it had a spiral staircase and was so open; it made you feel like you were some place important. It was magical. Of course, my parents really valued books — you handled books with care, you didn't throw books, you didn't tear books. Books were precious in our house.

Now, in the morning, for the homeless population, especially during the wintertime — that’s the place to go where it's warm.

HCN: How does the push to change the library’s name part fit into the larger discussion about race, civil rights and representation in Montana?

KR: It demonstrates that there was a level of acceptance there that you might not have known. If you think that what you see is all there ever was, it doesn’t really give you a good idea about how the place that you’re in came to be, and the people that built it.

I used to tell my students all the time that people don’t realize that they make history every single day. History is what you and I do every single day. Alma didn’t set out to become famous. She just really believed in the power of books and of education.

There is a level of acceptance in this community that people don’t realize. In spite of some prejudice that may have been with community members, it did not stop people from achieving. There’s just a lot of people who come to this community and think that because they don’t see a large African American community here, there probably never was one.

There’s just a lot of people who come to this community and think that because they don’t see a large African American community here, there probably never was one.

HCN: This past summer, Black residents and allies in Great Falls led protests against racial injustice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. What’s the significance of changing the name of the library right now, in the aftermath of those protests? 

KR: It’s probably important, more so now than ever, but I don’t think the moment has anything to do with it. It has to do with the fact that when we celebrate people of achievement in our communities, it’s encouraging, motivating and uplifting. When we only celebrate people who achieve that look a certain way, it discounts those who don’t.

African American history is American history. And when you discount that, you leave out a chunk of American history. When people see people who have achievements that look like them, it encourages them to reach — and reach at other heights. It dispels myths. There’s a myth that a lot of people believe that African Americans only came to Great Falls when the military came. But that’s not true. The first constable in the city of Great Falls was of African American descent. But if people don't know that, then that’s a part of their history that's lost.

HCN: Do you see any potential limits of representation?

KR: There are definitely limits. Because if you don’t educate — if you don’t explain — it’s just another name, and there’s no value to it. It comes back to education.

Surya Milner is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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