Honoring the life of Dulcina DeBerry

Black History Month: Huntsville trailblazer who opened doors and turned pages for African Americans in the 1940s
Updated: Feb. 12, 2021 at 8:41 AM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - In the 1900s, educational resources for African Americans were scarce. But Dulcina DeBerry, educator and librarian, worked hard to fight those inequities and eventually opened the first public library for African Americans in Madison County.

“She was a very compassionate person. She was a scholar, she loved to learn…and she was a problem solver,” said Shalis Worthy, Archivist at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library.

Dulcina DeBerry was born in 1878 in South Carolina to a formerly enslaved sharecropping family. She was the second oldest of 11 children. Despite being poor, her parents prioritized education.

“Her father would scrimp and save to pay for extra education...To afford textbooks,” Worthy said.

DeBerry did not squander her family’s sacrifices. She went on to a two-year normal school and became a teacher in King’s Mountain, North Carolina. DeBerry later earned a degree from Shaw University.

“By the time she started going to Shaw, she was in her 40s,” Worthy said. “She was married, she was a mother. She actually attended the university with her daughter. They graduated the same year.”

About a decade later, DeBerry’s father passed away. Her mother, who was now living in Huntsville, became ill. DeBerry packed up her life and started a new chapter in Alabama.

“She went to the Huntsville Carnegie Library and found out that there was no service at all in Madison County for African American people,” Worthy said.

That realization fueled DeBerry to find a way. She became close friends with the director of the library system, started borrowing books and found an open space.

“The library started in the basement of Lakeside Methodist Church. She was a member at the church and it was funded by the Works Progress Administration,” Worthy said.

With just about 30 books on the worn-out shelves, the black community rallied around DeBerry. The small library eventually extended its services to Madison County schools. The library would move one more time before finding a spot on Pelham Avenue in 1947, a bustling black business district.

“There was a large black community in the area, several black businesses, it was right next to Council High School so the library got a lot of users there. It was a great spot for the library,” Worthy said. “And that’s also when it became the Dulcina DeBerry Library.”

At that point, the library had grown its collection by 5,000 books.

“She was only here for 10 years but in 10 years she made such a huge impact on the community,” Worthy said. “So if we could all bring that spirit to our community imagine what kind of a place it could be.”

As Huntsville prepares to open two new public libraries this year, Councilman Devyn Keith says we must honor the ones who paved the way.

“I really want to let everybody know that we were intentional in recognizing the history of those who are still with us and those who have passed who have allowed and laid the groundwork for people like myself and for places like this,” Keith said.

In 1951, the Dulcina DeBerry Library on Pelham closed and was moved to a two-story building on Church Street. That spot was eventually torn down amid urban renewal efforts. In 1962, the library board began integrating services and four years later, the Fountain Row Library opened to the public.

“A lot of Huntsville is the byproduct of African Americans. From Redstone all the way to Alabama A&M, the impact of Huntsville and the success of Huntsville has been because of African Americans here,” Keith said.

DeBerry moved back home to North Carolina in 1951 and later moved to Ohio where she died at age 91.

There is a historical marker at the original site of Lakeside Methodist Church on Jefferson Street honoring DeBerry. The North Huntsville Public Library will also recognize the trailblazer and her role in educational equality.

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