Celebrating 125: How One Librarian Paved The Way For True Integration
The New Orleans Public Library officially desegregated in 1954, making it one of the first institutions in the city to reject Jim Crow laws. However, while the move integrated libraries on paper, it took many years of strategic initiatives to truly desegregate the system. Geraldine Vaucresson became an important player in that process when she was hired to work at the Napoleon Branch in 1961.
Geraldine was a Black woman, and the Napoleon Branch –– now called the Children’s Resource Center Library –– was not a Black library. By integrating their staff, Library officials hoped Black residents would be empowered to go into Library locations where they had previously been unwelcomed, including the one where Geraldine was employed.
Geraldine was the first hire in this plan, cementing her as a key figure on the road to true integration.
Her son, Vance Vaucresson, was born after Geraldine left the Library, but he said she was always very proud of her work there. He grew up hearing stories about his mother’s time at the Napoleon Branch, including the backlash she faced early on.
“They had protesters that first day,” Vance said. “They were outside protesting when she came to work in the morning. And some of the police told her that, right before she arrived, they had cut down a doll on a noose that was hung outside the Library.”
The protesters stuck around but were not particularly successful in their attempts to harass Geraldine, as they could never quite figure out who she was.
“When these people would go into the Library to try to confront the Black librarian, they would leave confused because they couldn’t identify her,” Vance recalled. “My mother had a very light complexion, so to them, she looked white.”
While white patrons might not have been able to identify Geraldine, Vance said the Black community knew who she was, and her presence did embolden them to go into these historically white spaces.
“At the time, people didn’t really talk about being multiracial,” Vance said. “My mother didn’t fit the stereotype that many white people associated with Blacks, and I think the Library director at the time realized that. I think he knew it would be an easier transition for people if the first Black librarian had light skin.”
Even after people figured out who she was, it did not take long for Geraldine to win over the hearts of her colleagues and patrons. Monthly reports from the Napoleon Branch describe her as being “admirable and efficient,” and she served as the location’s acting manager multiple times. During one of those stints, several students from St. Stephen’s High School wrote letters –– unprompted, she specified in her report –– thanking her for always being kind, helpful, and encouraging.
To Henri Fourroux, Geraldine was all of those things and more. The two met when Henri was about 10 years old and attended Saint Francis Cabrini Elementary, where Geraldine’s children were also students.
“She and my mother became very close friends, and I grew to see her as almost another mother, too,” Henri said. “She was very important to me and very important to my family. It’s been one of the great honors of my life to have known her and been loved by her.”
As an adult, Henri followed in Geraldine’s footsteps. Currently a Library associate at Norman Mayer Library, Henri has worked at the New Orleans Public Library since 2006. Over the years, he’s worked to keep Geraldine’s memory alive and her accomplishments honored.
“Gerry was many things, but she was never really a public figure or a household name. She was always an advocate for the people she loved; and, now that she’s gone, the least I can do is be the same for her,” Henri said. “Her work as a librarian was very, very important to her, and she was proud of it. I want to carry that torch for her.”
After a few years of working at the Napoleon Branch, Geraldine left work to take care of her family and support her husband’s business ventures, Vance said, but she couldn’t stay away for long. Once her youngest child –– Vance –– was in high school, Geraldine went back to work. But, instead of returning to NOPL, she worked the rest of her career as a librarian in Catholic schools.
“My mother was a very religious, very Catholic woman,” Vance said. “Being a librarian brought her so much fulfillment, and education was everything to her. So, it made perfect sense that she would work at Catholic schools for the majority of her career.”
Even in the years his mother was not working, Vance said she always made sure he and his brothers were engaged with libraries.
“If we had a question or needed help with something, she’d always tell us ‘go to the Library,’” he recalled. “It was very important to her that her children knew how to find information for ourselves, which, to her, meant using the Library.”
Vance said that while his mother was proud of her work at the Library, integrating the system wasn’t something she would brag about.
“Today, we look back at it, and see it as this huge thing. My mother integrated the New Orleans Public Library. That’s amazing, and it’s a story that I am happy to tell, and I’m proud that it’s part of my family history,” Vance explains. “But, she just kind of took as is what she was supposed to do, as a Black person and as a Black librarian during the civil rights movement.”