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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Standing up for the right to read

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 11/30/22

The story began with a young girl who grew up in Watts, a south side neighborhood of Los Angeles, worlds away from her rural Louisiana home. Her family was part of the Great Migration that began in …

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Standing up for the right to read


The story began with a young girl who grew up in Watts, a south side neighborhood of Los Angeles, worlds away from her rural Louisiana home. Her family was part of the Great Migration that began in the 1930’s when approximately six million African-Americans left the south and moved north and west in search of a safer and more prosperous life.
While her parents struggled to put down roots, their daughter Tracie D. Hall thrived under the watchful eye of her grandmother. Together they made frequent trips to a local library, something her grandmother explained was not available to black children when she was growing up. Those excursions, browsing shelves of books wrapped in artfully alluring jackets, ignited her young mind with a passion that shaped her future.
This story reminded me of my own childhood, one not marred by racial prejudice but frequently overwhelmed by family stressors swirling below the surface. In 1959, as my father lay dying, my mother reluctantly accepted her mantle of “ the bread winner”, very different from her expectations of marriage on that long-ago day she muttered “I do.” Suddenly, she had no time to cuddle with her young children and read aloud from a good book.
As might be true for any girl overflowing with curiosity, often left to her own devices, my home fed a desire to explore and sometimes escape. I wasn’t a runner. Instead, I took to hiding. I found two favorite places to do just that. One inside the house. One outdoors. Together they became two perfect havens.
I loved to read and I loved to climb trees. Tall pines and maples lined the edge of our yard, providing dense cover from the neighbors. Thick branches were like ladders that safely allowed me reach their crowns where I experienced the thrill of “heights”. I could see far and wide. I could also build a hideaway. With a piece of discarded wire fencing fastened to hefty limbs and piled high with pine needles, one tree became my nest. Whenever possible, I’d slip out with my book bag - bandalier-style - slung across my chest, and climb my tree. There I was, alone where I always felt good — free to open my book and get lost in “somewhere else”. By the time the weather turned cold, I’d developed a strong appetite for time “all to myself”. But now, driven indoors, where would I find a secret spot?
Soon, I remembered the abandoned cubby under the basement stairs. With measured courage, I opened the door latch and peaked inside. I had no trouble seeing beyond layers of dust and cobwebs. I knew instantly this was the place to stake my claim. After a day of sprucing it up, I placed a small table and folding chair under the bare bulb that dangled from beneath the top step. Now I had my very own reading room.
I broke it in with the extraordinary story of Helen Keller, blind and deaf from a very early age, and her teacher Anne Sullivan who taught her the alphabet in Sign Language that would eventually allow Helen to finally communicate. Their determination and achievement felt heroic to me, an eight year old girl who only had a mom to look up to, and often turned to Joan of Arc as her main model for needed courage.
It was not until a recent radio interview between Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition and Tracie D. Hall, that I heard another story of inspiring determination and achievement. Hall’s lifelong passion has been for books and her associated love for libraries. From this has come her commitment to the “Right to read” as well as the right to publicly-supported access to information, in general. She had just received the National Book Foundation’s 2022 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service honoring her numerous academic and civic achievements.
The interview highlighted her studies and career choices that led to this acme of her career. Once having completed high school, Ms. Hall went on to receive a Law Degree and a Master’s Degree in African-American Studies from UC-Santa Barbara. She then obtained a graduate degree from Yale in International Studies, and later a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Washington.
In addition, she continued to accept leadership positions in several universities and major cities, advocating for greater investments to upgrade and expand library resources across the country. Notably, since 2020 she has served as the Executive Director of the American Library Association, “the first African American to lead the association since its founding in 1876”, according to an interview published on June 5, 2020 at
Ms. Hall has not only devoted her life to the betterment of children, but also to our collective right to access diverse realms of information now available through public libraries. She’s built on her grandmother’s legacy for literacy through efforts to protect these community based centers that promote knowledge. She’s been a champion for increased funding for staffing and necessary updating of resources. She also warns of recent attempts at overt censorship which, if allowed, could significantly weaken our democracy.
I’ve now added Tracie D. Hall to my personal list of “s/heroes”, women who have had a profound influence on my social and moral compass. She sits right up there with Helen Keller who, encouraged by her teacher and life-long friend Anne Sullivan, went on to attend Radcliffe College graduating cum laude in 1904, the first deaf and blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts Degree. Keller devoted her life to championing the rights of others as a lecturer, author and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. She certainly inspired me as a young girl. Tracie Hall inspires me today.
People like these give me hope for the future. Today, I thank them.
Donations can be made to the Cook Public Library, 103 S. River St. Cook, MN 55723.