The Stetson branch of the New Haven Free Public Library celebrated a century of providing a haven for learning and community to the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods with fanfare befitting the beloved fixture.
In recent years, the talk of about Stetson has been about its future home across Dixwell Avenue in what will be the new Q House. But on Saturday, the talk was of how the branch has helped secure knowledge and democracy in the community for 100 years.
While young patrons learned to skateboard and cook outside and painted nails and made crafts inside, the adults made speeches and praised the role of the library in the city in general, and in the city’s historically black neighborhoods in particular.
Mayor Toni Harp told the audience gathered for the celebration Saturday that that one of the reasons the U.S. democracy has lasted as long as it has is because of the free public library system.
“This branch is used every day,” she said of Stetson. “When we didn’t have programs for our young people, this branch was open and this librarian was taking care of children after school to make sure they were safe, to make sure they had positive and productive things to do, and to make sure they knew how important reading and learning is.”
The librarian Harp was referencing is Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown, a nationally recognized librarian. Brown preferred Saturday to shine the spotlight on her unsung heroes like her staff, the community organizations and people who provide activities at the library, and the patrons of the library.
“I don’t do this alone,” she said.
She also acknowledged her worries, particularly for the young people coming through her doors. One of the opening acts of Saturday’s celebration was a moment of silence in recognition of the death of 14-year-old Tyriek Keyes.
“It has been an honor to serve as the librarian in this community, but it hasn’t been easy,” Brown said. “It took years, and years, and years..to build trust. I think I’ve been here long enough to see three generations come through.
“I come to work every day and I think about the children,” she said. “I don’t know what the future holds for them. But I can say that 99 percent of the parents and grandparents are raising these children the best that they can.”
With a new Stetson branch expected to open its doors when the new Q House does in December of 2018, the city is looking to do its part with making that future a little bit brighter.
Michael Morand, president of the New Haven Free Public Library Board of Directors, noted Saturday that Stetson wasn’t the only entity in New Haven to reach the centennial mark. The Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP also marked 100 years this year and earlier in the day commemorated the 1917 silent protest parade that the NAACP had staged on Fifth Avenue—ironically near where Trump Towers stands today—in New York City by reenacting it with a march from Dixwell Avenue to downtown New Haven.
“Though that protest was silent it was full of words,” he said. “People held placards with extraordinary statements. They knew then what we know now: that words have power. There is no freedom, no democracy without access to knowledge.”
He reminded celebrants of the ongoing campaign to raise $2 million for the new Stetson Library. So far, $1.1 million of that $2 million has been raised, he said. Now, it’s up to the community to raise $250,000, which will be matched dollar for dollar.
It was announced Saturday that the Rev. Brian Bellamy, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, and his congregants have pledged $2,000 to the campaign and are challenging the houses of worship that line Dixwell Avenue to do the same.
City Librarian Martha Brogan said that thanks to the friendly neighborhood challenge one “might hear the collection plate going up and down Dixwell Avenue.”