Ethelene Whitmire is an associate professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She answered some questions about her book Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian.
Q: Who was Regina Anderson Andrews and what role did she have in The New York Public Library (NYPL)?
Ethelene Whitmire: Andrews came to New York City on vacation in the early 1920s and decided to stay. She previously worked in a library as an undergraduate at Wilberforce University. She returned to her hometown of Chicago and was working at the Chicago Public Library when she applied for a job at the NYPL. Because she was African American, she was sent to the 135th Street Library branch in Harlem. African American librarians were restricted to working in a just a few branches so Andrews’ opportunities for promotion were limited. She fought against these policies and was able to work at various branches during the next forty years. In 1938, while at the 115th Street Library, she became the first African American to supervise her own branch.
Q: Why is Andrews’ legacy important for our understanding of both The Harlem Renaissance and the participation of female African American librarians in the development of The New York Public Library?
Whitmire: So many books and articles focus on the artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. But Andrews, as a librarian, played a pivotal role in this movement too. She would set aside workspaces for the writers including Claude McKay, Eric Walrond, and Langston Hughes in the 135th Street Library. She invited people she met through her work at the library to a salon she co-hosted at the apartment she shared with two women. For example, poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen would read their work and get feedback from the attendees. People were able to network through this salon. Andrews, with the help of African American leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois, challenged the NYPL policies that prevented African American librarians the mobility necessary for job growth. Andrews helped to break barriers that gave other African American librarians more opportunities.
Q: You argue that Andrews refused to be limited by traditional roles because of her race or gender. Can you give some examples of how she challenged these roles?
Whitmire: Andrews married in 1926 and continued her career and enrolled in the library school at Columbia University. She later adopted a daughter, Regina Ann, and continued to work and became active in the National Urban League and the National Council of Women of the United States civic organizations. She was able to successfully navigate her professional, personal, civic and creative lives. Andrews was a board member for W. E. B. Du Bois’ KRIGWA theater which focused on only producing plays by and about African Americans. Andrews’ co-founded a theater company that decided to produce both African American and white plays. They consciously decided not to limit their plays by race. They also wanted to show a range of African American experiences on the stage. Andrews wrote several plays and unlike other female playwrights, her main protagonists were male. At least two of the plays demonstrated that fallibility of racial categorizations.
Q: You mention that Andrews hosted a salon of which Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were attendees. How else did Andrews foster creativity during The Harlem Renaissance?
Whitmire: Andrews nurtured creativity through her work with the Harlem Experimental Theatre (HET). She co-founded the HET with Dorothy Peterson and Harold Jackman. One of the goals of the company was to educate African Americans in various theater-related crafts like playwriting, acting, set design, etc. They offered classes and the HET company consisted of both theater professionals and amateurs.
Q: In addition to being a librarian, Andrews was both and actress and playwright who helped establish The Harlem Experimental Theatre (HET). What subject matter did her plays revolve around?
Whitmire: Andrews wrote three plays and two were produced by the HET. Two of her plays revolved around common tropes from the time period: lynching and passing. One play, Underground, was about the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves who successfully outsmarted the overseers sent to capture them. An unproduced play, The Man Who Passed, was about a man who decided to live life as a white man at great cost to his personal happiness. Her play, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, was about a lynching. Andrews was influenced to write this play by her interactions with Ida B. Wells-Barnett who was an acquaintance of Andrews’ father, defense attorney William G. Anderson. Wells-Barnett and Anderson unsuccessfully fought to prevent the execution of Anderson’s client by hanging. Andrews‘ plays have been published in recent anthologies and analyzed by scholars interested in African American female playwrights.