The Center Street Library was close to the flat my family rented on Medford Avenue. To get there meant crossing two very busy streets: 27th Street, that cut from North to South, one of the busiest streets on the North Side of Milwaukee before the freeways went in, and Fond du Lac Avenue, which angled to the Northwest, like Medford Avenue, one street to the West. As a girl, my little sister and I walked to the Center Street Library with Mom once a week, in the late spring, summer, and fall, before the snow and freezing temperatures came.
Like so many things Mom did for us, the walk to the library with Mom was one of those things she had not experienced as a child herself. She wanted things for us she had not had. Both of her parents were illiterate – the ancestors of freed serfs from Ukraine – and she had taught her own father to read English when she was in grade school in Milwaukee, in neighborhoods to the south and east of where I grew up. Poor people, they lived among poor people, and the flat she grew up in served as a boarding house for other men who came from Ukraine, hoping for work and a better life. My grandfather had returned to his own country to bring back his wife, Feodosia (Frances), and their eldest son, Ivan (John). By my measure, the better life they dreamed of did not manifest in the new land.
So Mom made sure we knew the inside of the library, and with her as an example we had library cards and, during the summer, we were members of the Billy the Bookworm Reading Club. To make progress in the club, I had to answer a series of questions to show I’d read the required books. One day, as I stood at the librarian’s desk, my cousin Mark whispered the answers to her questions in my ear. I’m not sure if I heard him right, and I’m not sure if the answers I gave were right, but she gave me the sticker to the next level.
I discovered my first crush at the Center Street Library. I stood in the aisles with Larry Bartis. He and I walked along, looking up – to the highest shelf! – where we read the titles of books out loud to one another! Oh – how we laughed! Once – only once – I glanced over at him, and to my surprise, I realized as I watched him throw back his head and laugh: “I like him! A boy!” I kept it to myself (years later, after we connected on Facebook, Larry confessed he’d had a big crush on me). But I had noticed, noted my first crush.
I still love libraries. In high school, I worked in the library at Washington High School in Milwaukee. In seminary, I worked in the Graduate Theological Union library in Berkeley. I love the smell of libraries. I love the little nooks with tables and chairs, places to relax into reading a good book, or places to write the first outline of an important essay for school. I love the tall stacks. I love to sit for hours, working on a paper, surrounded by the books that hold the answers to my questions. I love – loved – the card catalogs, that held directions to the answers to so many mysterious questions of interest. I love to take my questions to the Reference Librarian, who, I’m sure, loves to discover something new along with me, as he moves his mouse around the big screen on his desk that takes the place of the card catalogs. I love to sit in a corner with a magazine I’ve taken off the shelf to enjoy. I love libraries.
The building that was the Center Street Library in Milwaukee is now home to The Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum. The Museum “opened its door and its heart to the community, city, and state in 1987. Based on the premise that a people who know their history will grow to love and appreciate themselves more, the Society is striving to create a bright future out of a heart breaking past.”
Milwaukee Public Library opened the Center Street branch library in the former firehouse in 1927 (from “Urban Spelunking,” Bobby Tanzilo, December 12, 2017).
As I write today, I picture in my mind’s eye myself, my mother, and my little sister, Suzie, walking those streets again. What I picture is a scene from long, long ago. I’m grateful to my mother, who thought in a larger way for us than anyone had thought for her, as she introduced us to something greater than the life we knew, in that library. Maybe she knew it; maybe she didn’t. I’m grateful, anyway.