Profile: Clara Stanton Jones (1913-2012)

Clara Stanton Jones was the first African-American president of the American Library Association, serving as its acting president from April 11 to July 22 in 1976 and then its president from July 22, 1976 to 1977.  She was also appointed the director of the Detroit Public Library (1970–1978), becoming the first African-American director of a major city public library in the United States.


Early life

Stanton Jones was born on May 14, 1913, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a close-knit, Catholic family. Her future career and impact in library science almost seemed predestined as she frequented the library at an early age. Jones recalls that she was one of the smallest patrons at the public library near her grandmother’s house; she was also among very few black children at that local library. Although Jones had very little interaction with librarians in her young years, she read what interested her and selected her own materials. Her mother, Etta J. Stanton, worked as a school teacher, lecturing at public school systems until her marriage. Since the law did not allow married women to teach in the public school system, she taught in Catholic parochial schools to help support her family, including Clara Jones’ endeavor to attend college. Jones’ father, Ralph Herbert Stanton, was a manager at the Standard Life Insurance Company. He eventually accepted a position with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, where he worked until his death. Jones grew up in a highly segregated St. Louis neighborhood, but she was not daunted by the assumed, implicit Jim Crow laws; she instead regarded her young life to be privileged with all her primary mentors being African American.


Education and solidarity were heavily emphasized in Jones’ family. She obtained a well-rounded education even though the St. Louis public school system was completely segregated. She grew up in an entirely African-American world, with black role-models and mentors. In high school, Jones aspired to become an elementary school teacher, even though her future salary would be slightly below white counterparts. This position would still provide a high standard of living for African Americans at that time because the income gap between white and black teachers was only slight. Jones was the first member of her family to graduate from college. St. Louis was highly segregated, but instead of attending the local, tuition-free teachers college that was designated for black students, Jones attended the Milwaukee State Teacher’s College in 1930; she was inspired by her older brothers’ stories of college life away from home at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Jones was one of only six black students at the college. She transferred to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she majored in English and History and decided to become a librarian instead of a teacher. The president Florence Reed caught notice of Jones’ typing skills and offered her a position as a typist with the new Atlanta University Library; the librarians encouraged Jones to pursue a career in librarianship. She was highly receptive to their suggestions as she had already considered this career change. Jones remained in that position until her graduation; she received her Bachelor of Arts in 1934 from Spelman and a degree in Library Science in 1938 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Career in Library and Information Science

Jones began working in libraries the same year she completed her degree in Library Science. She said that at the beginning of 1938, she worked in libraries at Dillard University, New Orleans, and Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jones spent the remainder of her library career at the Detroit Public Library, retiring in 1978 as the director. She was elected the first black president of the American Library Association after she accepted the position as head of the Detroit Public Library. There was opposition to the election of Jones at the Detroit Public Library; the Friends of the Library had originally offered to supplement the librarian’s wages but withdrew the offer, then three people, a high ranking administrator and two of the commissioners, resigned when she was elected. Her detractors tried to challenge her authority by questioning her decisions, making decisions behind her back, and using degrading language. Her secretary, Carolyn Moseley, recalled how Jones never discussed these obstacles because that would affect how people perceived her. Moseley also recalled how Jones focused on helping others become more successful by utilizing her power and resources on their behalf.

Censorship of racist and sexist library materials

In May 1977, Clara Stanton Jones, then president of the American Library Association, responded to the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee’s (IFC) recommendation to quash the ALA’s “Resolution on Racism and Sexism Awareness” because its language remained unclear. Her response was published in American Libraries, the official publication of the ALA. Jones opposed the IFC’s proposal, declaring that the resolution required further adjustments and amendments to the language before the committee considered annulment. The IFC feared that the resolution favored censorship as a means to purge library materials of racist and sexist language, and thereby opposing the Library Bill of Rights pledge to sustain access to information and enlightenment despite the content, and encourage libraries to challenge censorship.

The ALA made the decision to deliberate the fate of the resolution and report its results at the 1977 Detroit conference. Jones asserted that the resolution did not conflict with the Library Bill of Rights, and instead promoted awareness by encouraging training and outreach programs in the libraries and library schools. In agreement with the Library Bill of Rights, she advocated for more enlightenment, not repression, to combat the effects of racism and sexism in library materials. Jones viewed the resolution as the framework, and not the final solution, for enabling librarians to confront issues that hampered “human freedom”.

“The spirit of the “Resolution on Racism and Sexism Awareness” is not burdened with repression; it is liberating. If the resolution is imperfect, try to make it perfect, but not by destroying it first!” – Clara Stanton Jones.

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