Dryades: A Look Back at New Orleans' First Black Library
The New Orleans Public Library first opened its doors 125 years ago in 1897, but it would take more than 16 years for the Library to serve all New Orleanians.
In 1915, NOPL opened Dryades Library as the first “colored branch” in the city. Prior to that point, the only Black patrons allowed in the city’s six public libraries were attorneys, who were permitted to use the Library’s law books.
In the almost two decades before Dryades opened, Black leaders in New Orleans repeatedly called for a library, but were told there were no funds to open one. It wasn’t until education reformer James Hardy Dillard stepped in –– with help from local clergyman Robert E. Jones and encouragement from Booker T. Washington –– and convinced the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to back the project that the City agreed.
Built at the top of what is now-called Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Dryades Library was located in the center of one of New Orleans’ most prosperous Black commercial areas. It opened on October 23, 1915 with 5,000 books and a two-person staff –– Adelia Trent and Delia Allen –– who were the first two librarians of color in New Orleans. Trent and Allen oversaw day-to-day activities at Dryades Library, which quickly became a pillar of the community.
For the next 31 years, Dryades Library would remain the only public library in New Orleans to welcome Black patrons. In addition to providing materials and activities, it was an important meeting place and was frequently used by local NAACP groups, Black business associations, the Negro Board of Trade, and many other community groups.
In 1946, a local philanthropist named Nora Navra died and left a portion or her wealth to the Library to build a new location. For many years, Black community leaders had been calling on the City to open a second library, and it was decided that Navra’s gift would be used to build one in the 7th Ward.
Later that year, Library officials opened Branch 9 inside Valena C. Jones Elementary School as a temporary location while its permanent home was being built nearby. When school started in the fall, Branch 9 moved into an empty lot on St. Bernard Avenue and N. Prieur Street, where two army surplus huts had been converted into a makeshift library.
Elaine Parker Adams grew up in New Orleans and frequented the Library in the 1940s and 50s. She fondly remembers her time spent at Dryades Library, which she would visit with her sister almost every weekend. Funding records show that Dryades consistently received less money and materials than other libraries; but, when Adams and her sister were there, she said they did not feel like second-class citizens.
“The Dryades Street Library was a monumental building in our lives,” she recalled. “Walking up the central steps and the double staircases made us feel very important. The large rooms with polished wood floors and soft-lit chandeliers made the Library a source of elegant comfort. I think that one of the most striking features of the Dryades Street Library was how important that building and its staff made the patrons feel. The Library elevated us.”
Now 81 years old, Adams looks back on those trips knowing they would shape her life — including her career as a librarian, and, later, an author/educator.
In 1954, the newly finished Nora Navra Library opened in the 7th Ward; and, for a brief moment, New Orleans had two public libraries for Black patrons. That same year, however, the New Orleans Public Library officially desegregated. Despite being integrated on paper, both Dryades and Nora Navra would remain important institutions to Black communities for years to come.
It was during that time that twin brothers Ken and Kerry Sabathia started using Dryades Library.
“Even though technically segregation was over, we understood that, as African Americans, we were allowed to use one of two libraries –– Dryades in Central City, or [Nora Navra] in the 7th Ward,” Kerry said. “But, we were kids. We didn’t really think of it in terms of segregation. This was our library, and we loved it. We didn’t feel like it was any less of a library because there were no white people in it.”
Like Adams, the Sabathia twins’ also remember Dryades Library as a stately and regal place.
“We had our own Library cards, so we’d go by ourselves,” Ken recalled. “I can remember going into that old building and thinking it was very impressive. It had that grand double stairway leading up to the building and shiny wooden floors. We were probably between 8 and 10 years old, and I remember feeling like it was an important place, but also a very welcoming one.”
Adams’ father owned a pharmacy near the Broadmoor Library. After libraries desegregated, she recalls going to that location a few times, but said she never felt as welcome there.
“I remember the librarians telling me and my friends not to touch any of the books because we would leave black marks on them,” she said. “That’s the way it was. It might have been integrated, legally speaking, but it took many, many years for segregation to truly end. And that’s why having Dryades Library was a blessing. It was safe. It was for us.”
Dryades Library closed in 1965 after being damaged during Hurricane Betsy, shortly before the Sabathias started attending St. Augustine High School.
“We started using our school’s library around that time anyway, so Dryades Library closing didn’t have too much of an effect on us at the time,” Ken said. “But looking back, I do think it’s a shame that they didn’t fix it back up. It was a wonderful experience coming here and it’s something I’ll never forget. I would have loved to have been able to share that experience with my family.”
Adams moved away from New Orleans in the late 1960s, but returns as often as she can.
“When I go back to New Orleans there are certain places I always have to visit, just to keep my memories, and I always visit Dryades Street Library,” she said.
The building later reopened as a YMCA and is still standing today, right where Adams and the Sabathia brothers left it –– near the corner of Philip Street and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. In 2021, the building was approved to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.