Thursday, July 7, 2011

Augusta B. Baker honored with endowed chair at USC

This is an honor well-deserved.

Those who taught young children in the 1960s, or who were raising young children during that time, will likely recall a five-volume children's literature collection called the Young Years Library, first published by Parents Magazine in 1963 and re-published annually for the next several years. The set was a treasure of nursery rhymes, poetry, fairy tales and folk tales, and excerpts of age-appropriate literary works for children. It was certainly treasured in my home.

For that treasure, parents worldwide have Augusta B. Baker to thank.

South Carolinians who love teaching and learning can be especially proud, because Baker spent the last fifteen years of her long career as an educator in Columbia, as Storyteller-in-Residence from 1980 to 1994. During this time, Baker also developed a marvelous relationship with the leadership of the Richland County Public Library, which benefited tremendously from her gifts.
In those days, South Carolina was led by Governor Dick Riley, so steadfast an advocate for public education that South Carolinians changed the Constitution to allow him a second term of office, then approved a sales tax increase at his urging to support our public schools through the Education Improvement Act. In those days, educators were respected professionals. And to have an educator as well-known and accomplished as Augusta B. Baker to relocate to Columbia -- thanks to her children, who had made Columbia their home -- was a feather in our cap.

Augusta B. Baker was equally renowned, respected and beloved:

She was born Augusta Braxton in Baltimore in 1911. Her parents were both teachers. Her father taught high school math and her mother was an elementary school special education teacher. They along with her grandmother, a talented storyteller, instilled in her a love of books and storytelling. Growing up she suffered from racial discrimination, attending segregated schools in Baltimore. However, with support of her educator parents she advanced rapidly through school, graduating high school at age 15. She attended the University of Pittsburgh and met her first husband, James Baker III there. She graduated from Albany State Teacher's College with a degree in Library Science in 1934. While she considered a career in schools the freedom offered by the public library appealed to her.

She followed her husband James to New York City after getting her degree and applied to The New York Public Library. With the birth of her first child, she became reluctant to accept a position, especially one that only paid $110 a month. Anne Carroll Moore, the library’s Supervisor of Work with Children, convinced her to work part-time at the 135th St. Branch until a full-time librarian could be hired. No replacement was found. Soon the rewards of working with children in the public library convinced Ms. Baker to devote her life to the work.

She established the 135th St Branch children’s room as a center of cultural and recreational activity for the children of the neighborhood. Under branch librarian Ernestine Rose, who also taught public administration at Columbia University, she made extensive contacts throughout her community reaching out to local school and day care groups. One of the children she influenced there was a child named James Baldwin, who later became the world-renowned author. She established a toy lending library to help children whose family could not afford them. She later worked to establish a special collection of African American children’s materials.

She received formal storytelling training from Mary Gould Davis who taught “The Art of Storytelling” at the library school of The New York Public Library. At first she felt uncomfortable with the formal requirements of storytelling at the library but she adapted so successfully she become the Assistant Coordinator of Children’s Services and Storytelling Specialist for The New York Public Library from 1954 to 1961. In this role she trained new storytellers and promoted storytelling throughout the system. In 1955 she published Talking Tree, her first collection of stories. In 1957 she developed the influential book list Books about Negro Life for Children . In it she identified, possibly for the first time, children’s titles that gave an accurate and meaningful description of African American life. The work has been updated many times since then and is currently titled The Black Experience in Children's Books, the most recent being produced by the library in 2004. It serves as a guide for librarians, teachers and parents around the country.

In 1961 she became Coordinator of Children’s Services and served in this position until her retirement in 1974. In this position she influenced the careers of many children’s authors and illustrators including Ezra Jack Keats, Madeleine L'Engle, Maurice Sendak and John Steptoe. She began introducing more audiovisual materials to library collections and served as a consultant to the newly formed children’s television program Sesame Street. She served on the Executive Board of the American Library Association and as president of the president of Association for Library Service to Children and chaired the Newbery/Caldecott Award committee. Throughout her work at the American Library Association she strove to increase career opportunities for African American librarians.

In 1980 Baker accepted a position as Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina where she worked until 1994. The Augusta Baker's Dozen Storytelling Festival in South Carolina was established in her honor. Augusta Baker died on February 23, 1998.

What an exemplar.

Which makes this week's news from USC so welcome. The university has established an endowed chair in Baker's name, and has appointed its first holder.

An African-American woman who was inspired by the stories she heard from storyteller and children’s literacy pioneer Augusta Baker has been named the first holder of a chair in Baker’s honor at the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Michelle Martin, 45, a Clemson University English professor who specializes in children’s literature and African-American children’s literature and community literacy programs, will join the faculty in August as the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy.

Part of a Children, Libraries and Literacy Initiative of USC’s School of Library and Information Science, the chair honors Baker, a beloved children’s librarian and storyteller who made South Carolina her home after a 37-year career at the New York Public Library. She served as USC’s storyteller-in-residence for 14 years.

Martin said the appointment is special to her on many levels.

“I knew Augusta Baker as a child and heard her tell stories,” Martin said. “I have relied on her groundbreaking work for my own academic research. She has been a really important name to me for a long time, and because this chair is about outreach and building programs to help stamp out illiteracy in South Carolina, it just seems like a perfect fit.”

Martin will conduct research on literacy and oversee outreach programs for the literacy community throughout the state, including public and school libraries and community-based literacy programs. She also will work closely with the School of Library and Information Sciences’ S.C. Center for Children’s Books and Literacy and its literacy programs, including the successful literacy program, Cocky’s Reading Express™.

Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Information Studies, says Martin’s scholarship and commitment to service, combined with her engaging personality make her the right choice for what he calls an essential quest.

“Dr. Martin, in addition to her impeccable credentials, brings a sense of excitement and engagement we think will be contagious for all working with us in this essential quest to foster children’s literacy,” Bierbauer said.

Announced in 2005, the Augusta Baker Chair is the first endowed chair in the Palmetto State named for a black female.

Dr. Samantha Hastings, director of USC’s School of Library and Information Science, says the chair is more than a salute to children’s literacy and honors one of the great librarians of the 20th century.

“Augusta Baker understood the importance of reaching children early, igniting their imaginations and keeping the lamp of literacy shining on them,” Hastings said. “Dr. Michelle Martin also understands how important it is to reach children early and keep them engaged in the joy of reading. She has the energy and talent to help us develop a deeper understanding of how our outreach programs like Cocky’s Reading Express™ impact the academic performance of students.”

Hastings said Martin’s contributions also will benefit the state.

“On a larger scale, Dr. Martin will help the university and the state tell the story of how literacy contributes to economic development and help South Carolina’s next generation of children who are articulate and able to read reach their full potential,” Hastings said. “We are fortunate to have Dr. Martin as a partner in our quest to eliminate illiteracy in South Carolina.”

Martin says she will work to enhance literacy programs through greater coordination and less duplication.

“Many literacy initiatives already exist within our library school at USC and in the public and school libraries throughout South Carolina,” Martin said. “It is my goal to create an umbrella that will serve as a clearinghouse for those initiatives so that we can enhance, not duplicate, our literacy efforts.”

At USC, Martin will continue teaching children’s and young adult literature courses. Among the courses she has a particular affinity for are ones on The Picture Book, The Newberry and Caldecott awards, the Coretta Scott King Awards and Ethnicity and the Child.

Meanwhile, Martin says she plans to finish her current project, a book on the little-known children’s literature of Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, next year.

Martin graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1988, where she earned a Bachelor in Arts degree in English literature. She earned a master’s degree in Outdoor Teacher Education from Northern Illinois University and a doctorate in English from Illinois State University. She has written extensively on African-American children’s literature. Her book, “Brown Gold: Milestones in African American Children’s Picture Books 1845 – 2002” drew from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African-American children’s books, which Augusta Baker established in the Countee Cullen branch of the New York City Public Library.

Martin says she looks forward to returning to her hometown of Columbia, where she attended Greenview Elementary, Fairwold Middle and W.J. Keenan High School with Baker’s grandchildren, and to giving back to the community that gave her so much, including her defining verve and work ethic.

“You bloom where you are planted, and you give back wherever you can,” Martin said. “That ethic has followed me from my days as a naturalist at Sesquicentennial State Park in the early 1990s when I led programs for Greenview Elementary students, through my academic career. I love the idea of coming home and being able to give back to the community out of which I came.”

Congratulations, Dr. Martin. And thank you again, Ms. Baker.

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