After Alice Childress Library Rejected Racism Charged

An Alice Childress Library? That was the dream of Michael Rogers, who Childress mentored into a successful career on stage, as well as others. It made sense for Roosevelt Island, but it was dismissed out of hand by the New York Public Library. And City Council Member Julie Menin let it slide with the lamest of excuses.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily

Why an Alice Childress Library for Roosevelt Island?

Inside the Roosevelt Island Public Library. A group believes it should be renamed for pioneering author and Roosevelt Islander Alice Childress.

If not simply a counterbalance to structural racism, there were other good reasons.

An acclaimed author, Childress was a Roosevelt Island pioneer, spending the last decades of her life in a Westview apartment. She continued writing and teaching but also found time to help start the first library. Originally located on the first floor in her building, it evolved until finally being adopted into the New York Public Library system.

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Alice Childress’s papers are stored in the Schomberg Center for Research in Black History. That NYPL branch is named after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

In recent years as webs of embedded racism were swept back, RIOC, under Susan Rosenthal’s and Erica Spencer-EL’s leadership, worked at recognizing Childress’s place in the community.

After a memorial to the deceased author was nearly drowned in mud by free-parkers at PS/IS 217, Spencer-EL rescued the plaque. It found a safe, new home in a shady spot beside the Meditation Steps.

Connecting with Childress’s champion, Roosevelt Islander Michael Rogers, Rosenthal produced her play Trouble in Mind in the Howe Theatre on Main Street. In a subsequent revival, the play led to Childress’s first Broadway opening at Circle on the Square, last year.

Taking It to the Next Level…

The Daily, inspired by enthusiastic support from locals and theatre enthusiasts, gathered up the full story along with endorsements and asked City Council Member Julie Menin for help. We needed someone that could reach the right people and get consideration.

We picked the wrong advocate. Or maybe even using the term “advocate” is stretching it. Menin was not that.

The NYPL Rejection

After hearing nothing from Menin or her staff for weeks, we asked.

“Regarding the library, we made the request and NYPL said no they don’t rename libraries or portions of it,” wrote Anna Correa.

The easy answer, in addition to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg…

  • Countee Cullen
  • Stephen A. Schwarzman
  • Francis Martin
  • Terence Cardinal Cooke
  • Stavros Niarchos
  • St. Agnes
  • Oswald Ottendorfer

All have libraries or “portions” named after them.

“But they do, and they have,” we shot back. “There are numerous libraries named after individuals. Why accept an answer like that?”

We also texted Menin, telling her the excuse was lame. She did not respond. Neither did Correa or anyone else on her staff.

The Alice Childress Library In Perspective

“If we gave them $10 million, they would,” said one angry supporter of the Alice Childress Library. “If she was a white woman, they’d have done it in a minute.”

While both suggestions may be true, something else may be in play and lends perspective.

A debate is going on over whether City Council redistricting should keep Roosevelt Island part of the Upper East Side district or join in with neighbors in Astoria and Long Island City. A misinformation campaign strives to frighten the community by saying the latter means the Island suddenly becoming part of Queens and leaving Manhattan.

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That’s not even slightly true. All it means is a change among the neighbors with whom we share a City Council representative. Given Menin’s blowing off the Alice Childress Library bid, is that so bad?

For decades, we’ve thrown in with the high incomes and strong influence of Upper East Siders. But since Jessica Lappin, who helped deliver Four Freedoms Park and Cornell Tech and got MetroCard access for the Tram, what have we gotten?

For eight years, we all liked Ben Kallos. He showed up for everything, but after a fast start, what did he actually do for Roosevelt Island? He handed out face masks, but where was he on serious issues like RIOC mismanagement and the bad contract that keeps the Tram OMNY-free?

Is It the Location?

For too many local politicians, marketing the appearance of taking action is how the game is played. Writing letters and promising to “fight” for constituents replaces picking up the phone or picking fights when you have to.

Except for State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and, to a lesser degree, Senator José Serrano, nobody fights for Roosevelt Island. Talking a good game doesn’t count.

And we see it again with the Alice Childress Library effort.

Maybe it’s time for a change because the Upper East Side never had our backs and never will.

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