“The George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library,” by S.M. O’Connor

The George C. Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which stands at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and 48th Street, in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Grand Boulevard (Community Area #38) on the South Side of Chicago, was named in honor of Dr. George Cleveland Hall (1864-1930).  He was a surgeon who served as chief of staff for Providential Hospital for 30 years.  In 1926, Dr. Hall had the distinction of being the second Black African-American to be appointed to the Chicago Public Library’s Board of Directors.

George Cleveland Hall was born on February 22, 1864 to James W. and Emmaline Buck Hall in Ypsilanti, Michigan, attended public schools in Ypsilanti, and graduated with honors from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania in 1886.  Hall graduated from Bennett Medical College in Chicago in 1888, and established a lucrative medical practice.  In 1894, he married Theodosia Brewer and had two children, a daughter named Hortense, and another who died in infancy. Dr. Hall was founder of the Cook County Physicians’ Association of Chicago and the first president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (A.S.N.L.H.). He was vice president of the National Urban League and the Chicago Urban League, and chairman of the Wabash Y.M.C.A.’s management board, and served on Governor Frank Lowden’s Race Commission.

Dr. Hall convinced Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) to donate money towards the purchase of land for the library.  The two men had worked with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). Rosenwald agreed to donate land he owned at 48th Street and Michigan Avenue, one block from the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments housing complex. The value of the gift was $30,000.[1]

In 1895, Rosenwald and his brother-in-law Alfred Nusbuam had purchased from Richard Sears (1863-1914) what had formerly been the half-ownership stake of Alvah Roebuck (1864-1948), in Sears, Roebuck & Company, after Roebuck asked Sears to buy him out.  In 1901, Sears and Rosenwald bought out Nusbuam; in 1906 they took the company public; and in 1908 Rosenwald succeeded Sears as president of the company when Sears became chairman.  Rosenwald served as chairman of the board of directors from 1924 until his death.

Rosenwald’s philanthropy is best remembered today through the Museum of Science and Industry, which he founded in cooperation with the South Park District (which later merged with other Chicago park districts to form the Chicago Park District), but he also gave millions of dollars towards the education of Black African-Americans.  In 1917, Rosenwald had founded the Rosenwald Fund, which provided more than $4,000,000 to build over 5,357 public schools, 200 teachers’ homes, 163 workshops, and 5 trade schools for educationally underserved Black African-Americans in the South. He also paid to add 4,000 libraries to existing schools. These establishments were known as Rosenwald Schools, though Rosenwald’s name did not appear on them.  As with many other charities to which he subscribed, he contributed to the foundations of these educational institutions with the understanding that his funds would be matched from other sources.  Rosenwald supported higher education for Black African-Americans as well, by contributing $2,000,000 to Tuskegee, Howard, Fisk, Atlanta, and Dillard Universities.  He was a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute from 1912 until his death in 1932.

In May 1929, the Chicago Public Library’s Board of Directors approved the construction of the Bronzeville library, and hired architect Charles Hodgdon (1866-1953).  Early in his career, Hodgdon restored Blake House for the Dorchester Historical Society in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  In 1907, Hodgeson gained supervision of the Chicago office of the famous Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, the same firm that designed The Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center).  Further, they designed a number of buildings for The University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park during the second phase of construction on campus, from 1901 to 1916. In Following the deaths of his partners – George Shepley (1860-1903) and Charles Rutan (1851-1914) – Charles Coolidge (1858-1936) chose Hodgdon in 1915 to be his new partner and they changed the name of the firm to Coolidge & Hodgdon.  They designed multiple branches of the Chicago Public Library; the Harris Trust bank building and the Corn Exchange bank building; the Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist; and at The University of Chicago in Hyde Park they designed Swift Hall and Joseph Bond Chapel (next to Swift Hall), Wieboldt Hall, Eckhart Hall, Abbott Memorial Hall, Ida Noyes Hall, Billings Medical School and Hospital, Bobs Roberts Memorial Hospital for Children, Hicks-McElwee Orthopedic Hospital, and Whitman Laboratory, amongst others.[2]  This was part of the third phase of construction on The University of Chicago campus, which took place from 1926 to 1931.  Outside Chicago, they designed First Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Iowa; Fountain Street Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Second Church of Christ, Scientist in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  They designed multiple buildings for Southern Methodist University.  For the University of Nebraska, they designed seven buildings.  Coolidge & Hodgdon designed McKinlock Court for The Art Institute of Chicago[3]  In 1930, Coolidge retired and Hodgdon founded a new architectural firm in Chicago, Chas. Hodgdon & Son.  Chas. Hodgdon & Son designed six buildings on the campus of St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Massachusetts; the synagogue Temple Sholom in Chicago; and several buildings for the U.S. Navy at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.  They restored the Old Main Hall for Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.  Hodgdon sat on the Burnham Architectural Library Board at The Art Institute of Chicago.  For the Bronzeville library, Hodgdon designed a neo-classical building with an octagonal tower.

Dr. Hall died on June 17, 1930, while the library was under construction.  Consequently, the C.P.L. Board of Directors voted to name the library in honor of Hall.

The George C. Hall Branch Library opened on January 18, 1932, twelve days after Rosenwald died at his Tel-Arvin estate in what is now Highland Park, and roughly eighteen months after Dr. Hall died. Vivian Gordon Harsh (1890-1960) was the Hall Library’s first Branch Head, and Charlemae Hill-Rollins (1897-1979), was the Hall Library’s first Children’s Librarian.  Ms. Harsh was the city’s first Black African-American librarian to serve as a branch head.

Vivian Harsh served as Branch Head of the Hall Library for twenty-six years, from 1932 to 1958.  She viewed the library under her stewardship as a community center, and used it to promote adult education.

Vivian Gordon Harsh was born in Chicago on May 27, 1890 to Fenton W. and Maria L. Harsh (nee Drake), two Fisk University graduates.  Her only sibling was Fenton W. “Pritt” Harsh Jr., a realtor and jazz musician.  The Harshs were “Old Settlers,” members of the social elite amongst Chicago’s earliest Black African-American residents (excluding Jean Baptiste Du Sable).  In 1908, Vivian Harsh graduated from Wendell Phillips High School.  The next year, she became a junior clerk for the Chicago Public Library, the only employer she would ever know.

By 1924, she had graduated from Simmons College Library School in Boston and been appointed Branch Librarian at Hardin Square Library.  She was the Chicago Public Library’s first Black African-American branch librarian. While at the Hardin Square Library, and, later, the Abraham Lincoln Center, she joined the A.S.N.L.H.

In 1931, several months before the Hall Library opened, the Rosenwald Foundation awarded Ms. Harsh a fellowship, while she was a student at the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago.  This allowed her to tour the Black African-American collections on the East Coast.  She visited the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection, the Fisk University Library, and the Atlanta University Library.

Ms. Harsh developed a collection of literary materials from around the world that represented the cultural heritage of Black African-Americans, the Special Negro Collection.  Despite official indifference to the Special Negro Collection, she worked on the project for decades. She elicited donations of books, pamphlets, newspaper clippings, and photographs on Black African-American history and literature from friends in the A.S.N.L.H. and library patrons, and purchased works for it with grants from the Rosenwald Foundation.  She would encourage friends who traveled to distant cities to collect materials for the Special Negro Collection. Amongst the earliest donations to the Special Negro Collection were roughly 200 books from the private collection of Dr. Charles Bentley.

In 1933, Ms. Harsh established the Book Review and Lecture Forum (B.R.L.F.).  On a semimonthly basis, orators would come to the Hall Library to speak about Black African-American history and literature.  Speakers included the poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes (1902-1967); the poet, novelist, and librarian Arna Bontemps (1902-1973); the poetess Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000); the novelist, essayist, and literary anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960); and the novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Richard Wright (1908-1960).

Ms. Harsh encouraged the B.R.L.F. writers to contribute papers to the Special Negro Collection.  Langston Hughes acceded to her request and donated the typescripts and galley proofs of his autobiography The Big Sea, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1940.  Other speakers including Richard Wright and the academic and poetess Margaret Walker (1915-1998) used the Special Negro Collection as a research site for their own writings.

In the 1930s, Charlemae Hill-Rollins befriended poet Langston Hughes at a Works Project Administration (W.P.A.) sponsored writer’s project held at the Hall Library.  Mrs. Robins worked at the Hall Library until 1979, and later would become the first Black African-American to be appointed President of the Children’s Services Division of the American Library Association (A.L.A.).  The Hall Branch Children’s Reading Room was later dedicated as the Charlemae Hill-Rollins Reading Room, in honor of Mrs. Rollins as an author, lecturer, and storyteller.

Ms. Harsh retired from the Chicago Public Library on November 10, 1958 after a serious illness and bout of depression.  She was unhappy in retirement, and feared the Special Negro Collection would be neglected by her successor, Ollye Marr Coffin.  Of course, Ms. Harsh was a perfectionist who essentially devoted her life to building the Special Negro Collection, so her concept of neglect might have been different from that of most people.

Ms. Harsh passed away on August 17, 1960.  As Ms. Harsh never married or had children, her brother was her only survivor, but her funeral was well attended by friends and library patrons. She had been on the board of the Parkway Community Center, and was an active member of the A.S.N.L.H., N.A.A.C.P., Y.M.C.A., Y.W.C.A., Du Sable History Club, the A.L.A., the Illinois Library Association, the Chicago Library Club, and Grace Presbyterian Church.

In 1975, the Hall Branch Archives moved to the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library.  Today it is officially known as the “Chicago Public Library, George Cleveland Hall Branch Archives 1930-1975,” and its repository is the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature Carter G. Woodson Regional Library.  In terms of size, it is twenty-nine linear feet.

In 1984, the George C. Hall Branch Library was rededicated. During renovations the facility was modified to include a young adult center.

On July 7, 2000, The Friends of Libraries USA and Illinois Center for the Book gave George C. Hall Branch Library the designation of “Literary Landmark.” This reflected the library’s promotion of Black African- American literature.

At Hall YOUMedia, students can check out books, play video games, borrow laptop computers, and work with digital media.  First-time borrowers need to sign up, but returning borrowers can just sign in.It is open from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The Community Meeting Room can accommodate an audience of fifty-five people.  It has a lectern, a screen, a piano, six tables, and fifty-five chairs.  An application to reserve the room can be submitted up to three months in advance.  It must be submitted no later than seven days in advance.  Note a reservation is not confirmed until the branch manager approves it.

The Hall Branch Library is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.  It is closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

The address is 4801 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60615. The phone number of the Hall Branch Library is (312) 747-2541.


[1] Illinois State Library, Report of the Illinois Extension Division for January 1, 1930 to December 31, 1931. Springfield, Illinois (1932), p. 13

[2] They also produced a drawing of the Power Plant designed by Philip Brooks Maher (1894-1981).  The University of Chicago Photographic Archive has an online collection of photographs of drawings and an architectural model produced by Coolidge & Hodgdon.

[3] AIA Guide to Chicago. Alice Sinkevitch, editor. 2nd edition.  Orlando, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, London: Harcourt, Inc., (2004), p. 41

Chicago’s Famous Buildings. Ira J. Bach, editor. 3rd edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (1965, 1969, 1980), p. 19

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