21 June 2009
GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE
June 21, 2009
Great Falls Library dedicates arch to pioneering black librarian, leader
By TRAVIS COLEMAN
Tribune Staff Writer
The life and accomplishments of civil rights pioneer and library advocate Alma Jacobs were celebrated outside of the Great Falls Public Library on Saturday during a dedication of a new plaza fountain in her memory.
The location was appropriate, given how much of Jacobs' life was dedicated to the library. Jacobs was the first black librarian in Montana and later served as head librarian in Great Falls for nearly two decades.
Jacobs also was the driving force behind the construction of the current library building in the late 1960s. This was in addition to her efforts to document black history in Montana and her fight for the equal treatment of all people.
"Alma lived a life of accomplishment in Great Falls," said Jim Heckel, director of the library. Jacobs died in December 1997.
Dozens attended the dedication ceremony in which Mayor Dona Stebbins proclaimed June 16-22 as Alma Jacobs Week in Great Falls.
"A lot of friends of Alma's are here. They still remember her vividly," said local historian Ken Robison.
Born in Lewistown, Jacobs and her family moved to Great Falls when she was 6. She graduated from Great Falls High School and was awarded a scholarship to Talladega (Ala.) College.
After graduating in 1938, she was a bookmobile librarian in the South until winning a scholarship to Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in library science in 1942.
Jacobs became catalog librarian in Great Falls in 1946 and ascended to head librarian in 1954, a position she held for nearly two decades.
"She was visionary enough to see (the library) could be a big part of the community," Robison said.
One of Montana's most prominent black leaders, she later served as the state librarian for eight years. There she supervised the centralization of the state library's collections from locations scattered around the city.
Also, Jacobs' work to catalogue and compile black history resources inspired future research into black history in Montana.
Jacobs and her sister, Lucille Smith Thompson, created a 23-page bibliography of newspaper articles called "The Negro in Montana: 1800-1945." Jacobs also took part in various community organizations and stood up for civil rights issues.
"She left an impact in her time and for years ahead," Heckel said.
On a personal level, Jacobs also had an impact on several generations of Montanans. She helped raise Ruth Parker McLendon in Great Falls. Growing up, McLendon said there were places in Great Falls in which a black person couldn't enter or work at. But Jacobs looked past prejudice and kept fighting for equality.
"She kept on going and wouldn't give up," McLendon said.
Jacobs' impact on the community and the library made it a no-brainer to dedicate the new plaza in her honor. The project was created to deal with the sunken plaza outside of the library.
The $320,000 project was funded by the Community Transportation Enhancement Program, Heckel said.
"I'm so proud, straight proud," said Alan Thompson, Jacobs' nephew. "I'd like for people to remember my aunt in the times they need to stand up and do the right thing. She had the courage to do things in a time in which it wasn't safe to do that."
The new plaza at the Great Falls Public Library was dedicated on Saturday June 20 as The Alma Jacobs Memorial Plaza."
Dedication of the Alma Smith Jacobs Plaza Remarks by Ken Robison
Thank you all for honoring an amazing woman, Alma Smith Jacobs.
Our new not-profit, the Alma Smith Jacobs Foundation is being formed to honor Alma. Under the leadership of Reverend Mercedes Tudi-Hamilton, Frank and Mary Ghee, and our Board of Directors, the Foundation will address social and economic issues in Great Falls.
Alma lived a life of accomplishment and service to the Great Falls community. Mayor Stebbins will pay tribute to this.
We stand today in the new Plaza of the House that Alma built, the Great Falls Public Library. Alma’s quiet leadership and persistence led the Community to support construction of this Library over forty years ago.
Our Library is my favorite place in Great Falls. On the third floor, the Montana Room houses a fine collection of Montana history and a display of photos and memorabilia honoring the founding of Great Falls 125 years ago.
On the shelves of the Montana Room is a tiny pamphlet compiled by Alma and her sister Lucille.
This pamphlet is a bibliography documenting African Americans in Montana.
Alma’s pamphlet served as inspiration when Bob Harris and I challenged the Montana Historical Society to study Black History Resources in Montana. With good work by Patty Dean and Alma's nephew Alan Thompson, who are with us today, and others, Montana’s Black History is becoming available to researchers and to the classroom.
The memory of Alma Jacobs lives on.
Thank you . . . Now, Mayor Stebbins