In the small Mississippi farming community of
Yazoo City, Charlemae Hill Rollins was born on June
20, 1897 to Allen and Birdie Hill. Her grandmother
had been a slave whose master was also the father
of her children, including Allen Hill. Through her
grandmother, Rollins was able to enjoy the many
books that had been in the master's library and hear
the stories of her grandmother's life as a slave.
The family left the hardships of Mississippi for the
Indian territory that is Oklahoma today. Her mother
worked as a teacher and her father as a farmer.
Rollins completed her elementary education in
Oklahoma, but attended high schools in St. Louis,
Missouri, Holly Springs, Mississippi and at Western University. To further her education, she briefly attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.
After returning to Oklahoma in 1918, Rollins
married Joseph Walter Rollins, who became her life-long partner. The young couple migrated to Chicago where they found a permanent home and a place to raise their son, Joseph Walter Rollins, Jr.
Nurtured at an early age by the love of stories and books, it was natural for Rollins to feel drawn to the Chicago Public Library for employment. Starting as an assistant in 1927, she sought higher education and training as a librarian at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. She eagerly accepted a position that made her the first black head of a children's department with the Chicago Public Library in 1932 at the newly opened George Cleveland Hall Branch Library. In 1941, she identified a need among professionals working with children and she helped fill it with the publication of her book, We Build Together: A Reader's Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use. With an enthusiastic commitment to the welfare of children, she remained at Hall Branch until her retirement in 1963.
Even in retirement, Rollins could not extinguish her desire to bring positive images and experiences to children through books. She could not stop her life long dream of ending the unequal representation of blacks in children's literature. Her important works include: Christmas Gif': an Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written by and
about Negroes; They Showed the Way; Famous
American Negro Poets for Children; Famous Negro Entertainers of Stage and Screen; and Black
Troubadour, Langston Hughes.
Her fame spread from Chicago Public Library to the nation. She lectured at many colleges and universities. She achieved high offices in the American Library Association. Many national awards were bestowed upon Rollins during her distinguished career: Coretta Scott King Award, American
Brotherhood Award, Woman of the Year (Zeta Phi Beta), Negro Centennial Award, honorary life membership (ALA), Grolier Society Award, and the Constance Lindsay Skinner Award (Women's National Book Assn).
Rollins passed away on February 3, 1979. Her
crusading spirit on behalf of children was eulogized in poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks. Charlemae Hill Rollins was honored by a proclamation from Mayor Richard M. Daley on October 12, 1989 to celebrate the rededication of the Hall Branch Library Children's Room named in honor of Rollins. The event celebrated her life as a librarian, storyteller, author humanitarian, and as an ardent advocate for positive black representation in children's literature.
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