Library Renamed for Northside Activist
On September 18, 2001, San Jose's city council voted 10-1 to rename Empire Library in honor of Joyce Ellington, the dean of the city's neighborhood activists. "She has done so much for the community and deserves it," Councilmember Cindy Chavez was quoted as saying in the San Jose Mercury News.
Ellington has served on the board of San Jose's oldest neighborhood group, our own Northside Neighborhood Association (NNA), during its entire 36-year history. Ellington, who in 1980 became the first African-American chair of the city's library commission, was the driving force behind obtaining a library for the Northside in the early 1970s.
In 1974, the San Jose Unified School District proposed to sell the site the library now occupies. Neighborhood residents did not want the land sold to a housing developer. "We talked about making it into a park, and I guess I'm the one who suggested a library be built there," Ellington is quoted in a November 6, 1997 San Jose Mercury News article commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the library. "'We in the [Northside] wanted a library closer than the Carnegie [at N. 23rd and E. Santa Clara Sts.] for our children,'" Ellington told the Mercury News. "'Every other neighborhood had a branch library, and we were the oldest neighborhood association in the city.'" With help from then-Mayor Norm Mineta, another NNA original member, federal funding was obtained for construction of the library.
The library, which is located at 491 E. Empire St., site of the original Grant School which was rebuilt on the other side of the block in 1972, when it opened in 1977 was given the name Empire Library, a redundant appellation apparently chosen merely to underscore its street address.
In 2000, the city threatened to relocate Empire Library outside the Northside neighborhood as part of its master plan to rebuild and expand its branch libraries. (See, "Empire Library Endangered by Expansion Plans," Northside, Winter 2001, at p.7). Councilmember Chavez eventually stepped in to save the library, pledging in March 2001 that the library would not be moved but would instead be rebuilt at its current site. Meanwhile, NNA - unbeknownst to Ellington - proposed to rename the library in her honor to better reflect its history and the special place it occupies in the hearts of Northsiders.
In May 2000, NNA President Don Gagliardi presented the proposal to the city's library commission, an advisory body composed of San Jose residents (which Ellington had chaired 20 years earlier.) The commission soundly rejected the proposal, primarily on the grounds that Ellington was still alive and that city policy discourages naming public facilities after living people. "Doing so would set a bad precedent, commissioners said at the time," according to the Mercury News. "They said libraries should bear the names of neighborhoods or streets, lest they lose their identity."
NNA didn't give up, however. Again, Councilmember Chavez came to the rescue. NNA petitioned the city council to override the library commission. NNA garnered the support of other neighborhood associations and quietly presented their case to Mayor Ron Gonzales both directly and with the assistance of Chavez's aide, Sue Eakins. Former NNA president Euphemia Nutter, since retired to Southern California, made a special plea to Mayor Gonzales from Irvine. Nutter wrote:
"When this facility was proposed one person in the Northside area envisioned the need for such a resource for the children, Joyce Ellington. . . . Joyce spoke, in her mild way, forcefully and with the background of someone who was aware of the needs of children who had no references at home or the quiet of a space set aside for their studies. . . . I strongly suggest that the Empire Branch Library be named the Joyce Ellington Library. Such a place is an honor richly deserved by a person who saw a need and did something about it."
When the matter finally came before the city council this past September 18, NNA treasurer Ed Berger was joined in speaking in favor of the measure by Carol Savoy and Lisa Jensen, activists from the Horace Mann and South University Neighborhood Ass'ns, respectively. Mona Onstead, president of the Downtown Residents' Association and Ken Podgorsek, president of the Campus Community Association in Naglee Park and co-chair of the Downtown Neighborhood Leadership Forum, also appeared on NNA's behalf. The coalition among Councilmember Chavez's office and downtown area neighborhood leaders, as it has repeatedly now, carried the day.
"I, for one, am ecstatic," NNA president Gagliardi (who had been stranded in Europe when the matter came before council) said upon learning that the library had been renamed. "This is really is happy news for our small corner of a very troubled world."
renaming of the library in Ellington's honor not only recognizes her achievements
as a neighborhood activist and library advocate but is also an appropriate means
of honoring the diversity and racial harmony of San Jose, and the Northside neighborhood
in particular. Northside, in close proximity to downtown San Jose, is and always
has been, among San Jose's most diverse. "Northside is as well integrated
as a Coca Cola commercial and nearly as harmonious," crowed a 1979 local
magazine article. "It is the most cosmopolitan neighborhood in San Jose," the San
Jose Mercury reported back in 1966. Ellington has lived in the Northside
her entire life (over seven decades), and her home, built in 1908, is the oldest
home with continuing African-American inhabitants in San Jose. Ellington herself
wrote in 1984 that while "there are very few descendants of early black
families living in our area today, before the turn of the century and early 1900's
most lived in the Northside area of San Jose." (See, "Roots: the
Northside Origins of San Jose's African American Community," at p.16). Ellington
said that she and her husband "remember with fondness our youth here on
the Northside and the quality of life we enjoyed. Our commitment to that quality
has kept us here."
Ellington's fond recollections of life as a black woman on the Northside of San Jose during a time when African-Americans were being systematically denied basic human and civil rights in other parts of the country should a source of considerable pride to the Northside neighborhood and to San Jose. The fact that Ellington has devoted half her life to maintaining and improving her community, including conceiving and fostering the creation of a neighborhood library, is a contribution well worthy of being honored and may serve as a source of inspiration for neighborhood youngsters using the library, the majority of whom are of minority backgrounds. It always has been Joyce Ellington's library, and now the name will reflect the reality.
NNA intends to have a celebration for the re-naming of the library sometime in the future. We hope to make it a gala event, with lots of food and fun. Stay tuned for details. Meanwhile, if you're interested in volunteering for the planning and/or the event, contact Bonnie Ross at email@example.com.
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