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African Americans in Chicago

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The George Cleveland Hall Library and Vivian G. Harsh

The George Cleveland Hall Library located at 4801 South Michigan Avenue was a cultural destination where future great African American writers researched the history of their people while enhancing their writing skills. The library's illustrious future began with the facility's opening in 1932, fulfilling civic leader Dr. George Cleveland Hall's dream. With Chicago native Vivian G. Harsh's appointment to head this newly-constructed branch facility, she seized the opportunity to interpret the African American experience through the written word. Her mission was twofold: To use the library as a platform for fledgling writers and to build a collection of materials by African Americans and about the totality of the African American experience. In her success, Harsh truly earned the sobriquet of being the "Historian Who Never Wrote." Within seven years of the Hall Library's opening, Harsh claimed an annual usership of 250,000 patrons. During her career, Harsh succeeded in developing the Special Negro Collection, a black history collection that would become a world-renowned resource for residents and scholars. Appropriately, it bears her name as the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature and has been renamed, expanded and relocated into the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library Center at 95th Street and Halsted Avenue, southwest of the Bronzeville community. The first donation to the Special Negro Collection was from the estate of Dr. Charles E. Bentley, a true Renaissance man, who participated in all phases of the fine arts, along with medical science. Prominent as an eminently successful dentist with a downtown practice, Bentley willed his collection upon his death in 1929 of nearly three hundred books on African American history and literature. Today, the collection includes a constantly growing number of manuscripts, along with the Papers of the WPA's "The Negro in Illinois." Harsh's semimonthly Book Review and Lecture Forum, launched in 1933, provided a rare opportunity for patrons to hear distinguished speakers and participate in dialogue on topics dealing with black history, literature, and current events. During the length of the twenty-year series many prominent writers and creative artists from within and outside the Chicago African American community participated in this Forum. Their ranks included Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Horace R. Cayton, William Attaway, Margaret Walker, St. Clair Drake, Alain Locke, and Katherine Dunham.

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