Bring Tissue and Stroll through the Library Archives with Dean Heath
Librarians aren’t supposed to make people cry. Robert Heath, who came to Stillman College as a freshman in 1957, remembers how diligently librarians Martha O’Rourke and Lucille White strived to help others. “As a student, I worked in the library and I saw the joy on people’s faces when Miss O’Rourke and Miss White helped them find what they were looking for, so I wanted to become a librarian,” he states, stressing the word “joy.”
“In my freshman year, I took an aptitude test. I didn’t see the results until my senior year, when Dr. Samuel Franklin, my psychology professor, pulled out my test. The word library was circled on the top of it. I had already been accepted into library school and I had worked in the library as a student for three years. All that time, I didn’t realize that a test I took in freshman year confirmed that this was what I was meant to do,” says Heath, who returned to Stillman after graduate school and eventually was named Dean of the Library.
Although Dean Heath anticipated spending his life eliciting joyful smiles from library patrons as he assisted them in locating books and other resources, he discovered that there is a bittersweet side to being a librarian. One woman began to cry after he searched through Stillman yearbooks and helped her to locate a photograph of a deceased relative. “She cried because that was the only picture she could find of that relative,” he recalls.
When Dean Heath pulls out old photographs and reminisces, he sometimes pauses to chuckle. Fifty-five years ago, the big magnolia near the library used to be considerably shorter so its leaves provided more privacy. “Couples were known to slow down when they walked under the tree,” Dean Heath laughs. “There was a rumor that Dean B.B. Hardy hid under the magnolia to catch couples who went there to kiss. He was a strict one! Of course, the rumor wasn’t true, but it was funny.”
Although stories of violent racism in Alabama were making headlines around the world in 1957, and Stillman students would eventually lead the battle for civil rights in Tuscaloosa, Dean Heath came to Stillman just prior to the student unrest. “When I was a student here, we were quiet and docile. There was a pasture and cattle where the football field is now. The College raised beef. The only protest we had at that time was a silly beef boycott that a few students started because they were tired of eating beef every day,” he recalls. “The city was fully segregated, and we didn’t have the type of off-campus internships students have today. We pretty much remained on campus. But Stillman was a beacon for the entire community because blacks and whites could meet here in an environment that was not hostile.”
Stillman’s very existence was symbolic of an aggressive stance against racism. This was undoubtedly what motivated Dr. Samuel Burney Hay, Stillman’s beloved president from 1948 to 1965, to provide education to as many African American youth as possible. “Everyone used to say that if the school wanted to make money, we needed to send Dr. Hay home during registration because he would always find a way to keep students even if they couldn’t afford to pay,” Dean Heath says.
When Dr. Hay retired, students signed a petition begging him to remain as president and expressing their faith that the petition would “serve as a tangible reminder of our confidence, trust, respect and love for you.” The library houses the 12-foot-long, yellowed scroll that includes the signatures of 395 students. Carefully rolled inside the scroll, there is a note dated February 21, 1964 to Dr. Hay from Jimmy, a student who says he missed the signing but “please stay.” 1965 was the year of Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama. Yet, on the campus of Stillman, students were encouraged, guided and enlightened by white leaders like Dr. Hay, and African American leaders like Dean Hardy, who nurtured the students as though they were their own children.
They were not simply nice people, but Christians engaged in a righteous war against racism. “Some of them would literally turn their paychecks back over to Stillman. Miss O’Rourke and Miss White shepherded me though the process of becoming a librarian and assisted me in getting to my interview for graduate school. Although I sent an application to the University of Alabama, I knew they didn’t accept Black students. I needed to go to Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta) for an interview, and Miss O’Rourke and Miss White went in their pockets and paid my travel expenses,” Dean Heath states. “And Myrtle Williamson, who headed the student religious organization, was like an angel walking on campus. She was instrumental in helping us develop our spiritual lives and she had such warmth. Many of our instructors were retired professors from prestigious institutions who came here with their doctorate degrees. Often they were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. ”
Although he arrived at Stillman during one of Alabama’s most cruel eras, what Dean Heath reflects upon most is the amazing love witnessed on Stillman’s campus. Often, it is not the depth of human cruelty that moves people to tears, but the memory of profound kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice. Even a stoic might need to blink back tears when strolling with Dean Heath through the library archives.
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