top of page

The Woman Was A Trailblazer!

Having a deep love of libraries for my entire life and being blessed to work in one now, of course, this woman spoke to me! A trailblazer.

Virginia Proctor Powell Florence was the only child of Socrates Edward and Caroline Elizabeth Powell. She was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania on October 1, 1897. Both of Virginia’s parents died in 1913 and she moved to Pittsburgh to live with an aunt. She graduated from Pittsburgh’s Fifth Avenue High School two years later. Virginia followed in her mother’s footsteps, continuing her education at Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, where she graduated with A Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature in 1919.

Despite good grades, more than adequate training and experience, Virginia was denied her goal to become a teacher, and worked in her aunt’s salon as a beautician. During this time she met Charles Wilbur Florence, whom she later married, and he encouraged her to pursue a career as a librarian, noting her passion for both children and books.

During this time in history, African Americans were rarely considered for admission to white universities. Active 1: However, the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library School (now the University of the Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences) admitted Virginia, but not without much debate about allowing a Black person into the program. School officials were concerned about how white students might react, and figured she would have a very slim chance of finding a position even if she could complete the training. Not a single library in the Pittsburgh area ever hired a black person. After long and arduous deliberation, school officials admitted Virginia in 1922, based on her academic standing and achievement at Oberlin College.

Despite being accepted, Virginia still encountered gross discrimination. She could not interact directly with white patrons and was instructed to allow a white student, or eventually librarian, to answer questions a white patron may have. Virginia grated with a Bachelor of Library Science after only one year of study. Despite having proved herself many times, and in many ways, Virginia was not to find a position as a librarian easily as discrimination continued. When she graduated, she applied to many libraries across the country. Eventually the New York Public Library system hired her. Virginia was the first African American to take and pass the New York high school librarian’s examination, following which she was appointed librarian at the Seward Park High School in Brooklyn.

Although courting, Virginia and Charles Wilbur Florence delayed marriage while they both focused on their education and careers. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Charles spent two years at Harvard working on a doctorate, although he never completed all the requirements. The couple finally married on July 18th 1931. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, where Charles became president of Lincoln University of Missouri in Jefferson City, Missouri. Virginia took a hiatus from her career as a librarian to assume the new role as “First Lady” of Lincoln University. She was described as a very stylish, soft spoken woman who was very fond of reading clubs and social teas.

In 1938, the couple moved again, following another career move for Charles in Richmond, Virginia. Because Virginia could not find a position in Richmond, she accepted a job in Washington, D.C. while Charles remained in Richmond. Virginia was the main librarian at Cordoza High School until 1945, when, because of ill health, she returned to Richmond.

Florence returned to good health and worked as a librarian in the Richmond school system, specifically at Maggie Walker Senior High School, until her retirement in 1965. She and Charles remained passionate and dedicated to social justice issues. At a class reunion in 1968, Virginia said, “My husband and I being negroes, are especially interested in Civil Rights and better race relations. We work with our church, YWCA, and the Richmond Crusade for Voters toward that end.”

Virginia was honored by the University of Pittsburgh in 1981 with a Special Award for Outstanding Professional Service and again posthumously in 2004 with a plaque in the lobby of the Information Sciences Building. Additionally, the American Library Association recognized her endeavors by honoring Virginia in their list “100 of the most important leaders we had in the 20th century,” where she was ranked number 34.


bottom of page