Tonight the University of South Carolina honors astronaut and former Administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden, but we here at Unsweetened, dedicated as we are to the life and times of southern women, would like to remember the life of his mother, Ethel Martin Bolden, who served as an educator and school librarian in the Columbia area for over four decades.
Bolden was born in Charleston in 1918, but spent most of her childhood in the Edgewood neighborhood of Columbia. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1936 and enrolled in Barber-Scotia College, a historically black college in Concord, North Carolina. After two years at Barber-Scotia, she went to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she majored in English and graduated with a B.A. in 1940.
Following her graduation Bolden initially taught fourth grade at Waverly Elementary School and established a library at the school, which she remembered as “the first elementary library in the all-Black public schools in Columbia.” Because of the lack of funding for black schools (and black school libraries in particular) from the state, the library collection at Waverly was built from funds raised by the school’s PTA and matched by the Julius Rosenwald fund. Prominent among the collection was a set of “History Libraries” published by Columbia’s R.L. Bryan Book Company that consisted of grade specific volumes dedicated to African-American history.
Bolden first developed an interest in working as a librarian at Barber-Scotia and later took library classes at Allen University and Benedict College while at Waverly Elementary. In 1953 she decided to pursue librarianship as a career and enrolled in library school at Atlanta University—the nation’s oldest graduate institution serving a predominately black student body, and at that time the closest accredited library school to Columbia. Atlanta University’s School of Library Service was started in 1941 to train black librarians dedicated to serving libraries in the South, and, in 1945, Virginia Lacy Jones (the second African American to earn a doctorate in library science) became the dean of the school. Bolden recalled being “worked so hard…I never got a chance to come home on the weekend,” but also found that the “work was just terrific…good training, excellent, superb.” She specialized in school librarianship, and in 1959 completed her thesis on Susan Dart Butler, a pioneering black librarian in Charleston, and earned a Master of Science in Library Service.
Upon her return to Columbia, Bolden took a position at the new W.A. Perry Junior High School in her old neighborhood, Edgewood, where she served as head library for the next eleven years. In 1968 Bolden made the final move of her career—to the previously all-white Dreher High School. That year the school also hired Francena Robinson, a black woman, as the school’s guidance counselor, but no African Americans for classroom teaching positions. Bolden attributed the fact that the school chose to integrate its staff with non-teaching positions to the administration’s “thought that if you get a librarian, that’s a person who will have less influence” on students. But in her mind “that person in reality could be the person with the most influence upon children…she teaches all the children…the librarian sees everything.” Throughout her tenure at Dreher, Bolden advocated free access to all library materials for students (even letting reference books be checked out overnight) and using the library to enhance the classroom experience. She resented the practice of teachers using class visits to the library as a free period for themselves and having the librarian “baby sit.” Instead, she felt that it took “teachers and the librarian to work with those kids to give them the benefit of the experience.”
In addition to her professional duties, Bolden taught evening and summer classes at local colleges and universities, including Allen and Benedict. She was also active in the Palmetto Education Association, South Carolina’s black teachers’ union, eventually serving as chair of the organization’s school and college library section. She became a member of the South Carolina Library Association when that group integrated in 1967. Though not a formal member, Bolden secretly donated funds to the NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when affiliation with the group was prohibited for public school teachers. She publicly served as secretary of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations (SCCHR) in the 1970s. The SCCHR was established in 1954 as a private, biracial group formed to pursue desegregation of schools and workplaces, increase voter registration and participation, and address inequalities in housing. Following her retirement from Dreher, Bolden served as a trustee on the board of Richland County Public Library for over fifteen years and is memorialized with a large ficus tree in the children’s room of the main library in Columbia.
In 1941 Bolden married her high school boyfriend, Charles. They had two sons—Warren and Charles. Ethel Martin Bolden passed away in October 2002.
All quotes come from an interview with Bolden conducted by Robert V. Williams in 1988. The interview is available here: http://www.libsci.sc.edu/histories/oralhistory/Bolden/ebtrans.html.
All photographs come from the Ethel Martin Bolden Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.