‘Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South,’ is available Huckleberry Books, Coles in the Tamarack Shopping Center, and online at Amazon and Chapters Indigo.

Selby’s ‘Freedom Libraries’ hits the shelves

Childhood movie revelation led to the writing of a ‘Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South.’

Mike Selby

I was only ten when my father took me to see Star Wars — a moment in time which produced such a profound cluster of emotions that the memory it has resonated with me ever since.

I had been pestering my father to take me all week, but he didn’t know if he could. It was only his second year teaching at the East Kootenay Community College, and he taught a lot of night classes. Thankfully, he had one night off, and we were able to go.

The lineup that poured out of its front entrance of the Armond Theatre was so large it had wrapped its way down an entire city block, well past the Catholic Church. So many people had turned out the police were forced to barricade the street from traffic. Somehow the Armond accommodated everyone; even the police made it in before the main feature. Being there with my father sparked simultaneous feelings of safety, warmth, and belonging.

Riveted to the screen (trying to ignore the glow of the large clock beside it which had Rexall Drugs & McDonalds written on it), there was only one part I didn’t quite understand. When Luke Skywalker tries to enter the Mos Eisley Cantina (also known as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy), the grumpiest bartender in the history of film tells him he can’t bring his droids inside: “We don’t serve their kind here.”

I tugged on my father’s sleeve and asked him why the droids weren’t allowed in. “Robots don’t buy drinks” was his answer at the time.

It wasn’t until we were back home that he said he wanted to talk about that scene, telling me it was a comment on how a large portion of the world had been treated in both our lifetimes. I didn’t quite understand this, but he reiterated that it was a statement on the United States Civil Rights Movement, which in 1977 was not even a decade old.

That night there was simply no chance of either of us being turned away at the ticket booth. The Armond had no back entrances, special seating, or separate washrooms to degrade us. No one would beat my father with a bat or chain, and no policeman would use a cattle-prod on me. My sisters would not be tormented at their school. My mother would not lose her job. No one would shoot at our cars, dynamite our home, or run us out town. In fact, no one in the community had any fear of being beating within an inch of their life; or branded; or lynched; or castrated.

This was not the reality for millions of African-Americans. Change the theater to anything — grocery store, diner, school, playground, beach, or even a library — and the complete lack of human empathy is as staggering as the unimaginable levels of courage displayed by those who sought to change it.

“We don’t serve their kind here” was the policy of American libraries towards African Americans during a large part of the 20th century.

How this was changed is the topic of my book ‘Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South.’ It is available Huckleberry Books, Coles in the Tamarack Shopping Center, and online at Amazon and Chapters Indigo.

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library and the author of ‘Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South.’

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