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High Country News

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.

Read the full interview here: https://www.hcn.org/articles/north-people-places-honoring-montanas-first-black-librarian

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.