Trailblazer, Educator and Storyteller
Augusta Braxston Baker
Augusta was born on April 1, 1911, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents were both schoolteachers and instilled in her a love of reading and learning. While her parents worked she was cared for by her grandmother, Augusta Fax. She was named after this grandmother. Her grandmother told her great stories and Baker loved them. She carried this love of stories, planted by her grandmother, throughout her life. She learned to read before beginning school. She attended the black high school where her father taught and graduated at the age of 16. She then entered the University of Pittsburgh. At the end of her sophomore year, she met and married, fellow student, James Baker.
The newlyweds relocated to New York where Augusta wanted to transfer to Albany Teacher’s College (now the State University of New York in Albany) but she met with strenuous racial opposition from the college administration. Eleanor Roosevelt was on the board of the Albany Interracial Council (now the Albany Urban League) and strongly advocated for Baker’s transfer to be accepted. Roosevelt’s husband, Franklin, was the Governor of New York at the time. The college was entrenched in their opposition of admitting blacks, but it was delicate! They didn’t want to offend the wife of the Governor. In the end Baker was admitted.
Her career took a different direction at this point. She wrote: “I discovered I loved books, but I didn’t love teaching.” She earned a B.A. in education and in 1933, fittingly, a B.S. in library science in 1934. She was the first African American to earn a master’s degree in librarianship from the college.
Baker did teach until 1937 when she was hired as the children’s librarian at the New York Public Library’s 135th street Branch (now the Countee Cullen Regional Branch) in Harlem. She actually applied three times, before someone noticed that she would be an ideal candidate as she showed a deep interest in the work.
In 1939 it was very challenging to find children’s books that portrayed Black people other than stereotyped and speaking in dialect. A collection as established by Baker and down as the Ames Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Children’s Books. This led to a number of bibliographies of books for and about Black children. Augusta grew this project by encouraging authors, illustrators and publishers to produce, and libraries to acquire, books that portrayed Blacks in a favorable light.
Those stories that her grandmother told, and her life long love of stories, led to her appointment as Storytelling Specialist and Assistant Coordinator of Children’s Services. Shortly after that, in 1961, she became the Coordinator of Children’s Services. She was the first African American in an administrative position in the New York Public Library System. She oversaw all children’s programs throughout the entire NYPL system and set policy for them. Baker was prominent in the American Library Association’s Children’s Services Division (now the Association for Library Services to Children) and served as its president. She chaired the committee that awarded the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal. She also influenced many children’s authors and illustrators such as Maurice Sendak, Madeline L’Engle, Ezra Jack Keats and John Steptoe. She worked as a consultant for the then newly created children’s television series, Sesame Street.
She published an extensive bibliography of titles that related to the Black experience titled “Books about Negro Life for Children in 1946. Her criteria was straightforward and she stated that books chosen should be ones that “give an unbiased, accurate, well rounded picture of Negro life in all parts of the world.”
Baker retired from the New York Public Library System in 1974. In 1980 she became the Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina. This was a newly created position and the first such position in any American university at the time. During this tie she cowrote with Ellin Green, the book “Storytelling: Art and Technique, which was published in 1987.
When asked what she told students while teaching these classes, she replied: “I tell them what I’ve always said. Let the story tell itself, and if it is a good story and you have prepared it well, you do not need all the extras - the costumes, the histrionics, the high drama. Children of all ages do want to hear stories. Select well, prepare well, and then go forth, stand tall, and just tell.”
Her legacy continues through the Augusta Baker Collection of Children’s Literature and Folklore at the University of South Carolina. This collection was donated by her son, James H. Baker III, and contains over 1,600 children’s books, and includes materials from her personal working library, papers, illustrations, and anthologies of folktales that she used during her rich career.
For more about Augusta, check out this interview: http://www.libsci.sc.edu/histories/oralhistory/bakertran.htm