Testimony of Barbara McDowell Dowdall to the BOE, January 23, 2020

Hon. John R. Lewis Tribute

Young John Lewis spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, just seven years after he, his siblings and a cousin had been turned away from the public library in his small Alabama town, being told it was for whites only, not for coloured. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/17/rep-john-lewis-national-book-awards-refused-entry-to-library-because-black In 1998, now a five-term member of the United States House of Representatives, Mr. Lewis was warmly invited back to that library of his youth, after a 42 year “wrinkle in time,” for a reception and ceremonial presentation of a no-limit library card of his very own. Representative Lewis shared the lasting impact of that initial cruel and unjust barrier to youthful curiosity and love of learning, citing the pain time and again throughout his career, as recently as four years ago on the occasion of his receiving the National Book Award for the 3rd volume of his March on Washington trilogy.

With the relentless shutting down of our school libraries and dismissing of our Certified Teacher Librarians over the last several decades, Philadelphia public school children might just as well be living in Alabama of the 1950’s. Representative Lewis, when approached at an occasion in Portland, Oregon in 2015, where he was honored by my denomination, and informed about the absence of libraries in Philadelphia schools, he responded in puzzlement: “Philadelphia Mississippi?”

The loss of this resource means that before the virus hit, most of our students had little opportunity to develop internet research discernment and utilization skills, and zero opportunity to bring home for leisurely perusal and study a variety of books that would have stood them in good stead, at least at the beginning of their remote, web-based studies. Covid-19 cannot be the excuse for excluding restoration of our fully-resourced and professionally-staffed school libraries from the vision and drawing boards of this governing body and city administration. Resources (and reassurance for safety of library materials eventually provided to students) for such a courageous action of hope can be readily found. [Here, for example and, of course, in the wide-ranging resources provided by the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA)]

Barbara McDowell Dowdall, Co Chair, Ending Racism Committee, Unitarian Society of Germantown
Encounters with John Lewis:
1. Unitarian Youth Summer Conferee attending 1963 March with other UU’s (from a distance), mid senior year at Girls’ High, school with library then; shuttered in 2013
2. Delegate to Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015 (chance for in person conversation (retired English Dept. Head, A. Philip Randolph Career Tech High School, was powerless to stop shuttering of library)