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Saving collection led to naming of Douglass-Truth Library

The Douglass-Truth Branch of the Seattle Public Library, as it appeared in 1916, not long after it originally opened as a memorial to Seattle settler Henry Yesler. (Courtesy of MOHAI)

A branch of the Seattle Public Library is named after two African-American icons who never set foot in the Pacific Northwest.

The Douglass-Truth Library is located in a historic brick structure at the busy intersection of 23rd Avenue East and East Yesler Way in Seattle’s Central District.

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Steven Delvecchio is a regional manager for the Seattle Public Library whose territory includes Douglass-Truth. He says this library originally opened in 1914, and it was named for early Seattle settler, mill owner and one-time mayor Henry Yesler.

“The branch was originally called the Yesler Memorial Branch because the Yesler family had, during the original establishment of the Seattle Public Library as an organization and institution in Seattle, made some major contributions and also had personally been involved in getting the library started,” Delvecchio said.

In the 1960s, the Yesler Memorial Branch faced possible closure, but instead, with help from community members and the sorority called Alpha Kappa Alpha, it became home to what’s now called the African American Collection. This special collection comprises about 10,000 items, including books and archival materials with a focus on the African-American experience in North America and especially the Pacific Northwest.

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Steven Delvecchio says that because this important collection found a home at the old Yesler Branch in the city’s historically African-American neighborhood, a move to rename the library followed not long after, in the 1970s.

“The same initiative that led to the establishment of the African-American Collection wanted to say more clearly that this branch really was part of the African-American community in Seattle,” Delvecchio said.

“So they held a contest to rename the branch, and there was tie between [author and former slave] Frederick Douglass and [abolitionist and former slave] Sojourner Truth, so rather than break the tie, they decided they would just name the branch after both,” Delvecchio said.

The Seattle Public Library Board voted in favor of the name change in September 1975. Neither Frederick Douglass nor Sojourner Truth attended the rededication ceremony. Both had died in the 19th century.

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