Gertiana Williams & Charles Brown: Celebrating the Library's Black Leadership
In honor of Black History Month and the New Orleans Public Library’s 125th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the Library’s Black leadership.
In 1999, Gertiana Williams became not only the first woman to lead the Library, but also the first person of color to serve as executive director and city librarian. She was appointed to the role under Marc Morial’s administration, who was mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002. Before being formally named city librarian and executive director, Williams served as interim director for more than two years.
The position was left vacant following previous director Dan Wilson’s retirement. Williams was hired in 1990 to be Wilson’s top assistant. When asked about the years-long search for a new director, Library board members said there was not much urgency due to Williams being so competent in the role.
Under Williams leadership, the Library received a $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Her legacy includes a push to advance access to technology, which resulted in internet-equipped computer labs at Library locations across the city in the early 2000s. Prior to the initiative, all Library locations had some computers, but as many people at the time did not have computers or internet access at home, long lines and waiting times were frequently reported.
“Everyone deserves computer access,” Williams told the Times-Picayune at the 2002 dedication ceremony celebrating the East New Orleans Regional’s new computer lap. “This is a first step toward realizing that goal.”
Williams stepped down as director in 2004 before moving to Texas to head the Forest Hill Library.
Seven years later, Charles Brown stepped into the role and became the second Black Library director in New Orleans. Brown previously led libraries in North Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia and California.
During his time at NOPL, Brown helped implement a strategic plan focused on reinvigorating the Library after Hurricane Katrina. Under his leadership, 14 out of 15 Library locations were rebuilt, relocated, or renovated to some extent, including the construction of six brand-new libraries. He also helped to secure a new millage to provide additional funding and support for the Library, which was severely impacted by Katrina.
Brown retired from the Library in March 2019. Reflecting on his 50-year career in libraries, he said “It’s been filled with experiences that I could not possibly have imagined when I initially began, as a Library Associate, in a branch of my hometown St. Louis Public Library in 1969. Preparing to end a career that spans half a century and has been integral to my life is daunting beyond words.”
Brown passed away on Feb. 15, 2020, due to kidney failure.