As many OLLI members have learned, librarian Wanda Cox-Bailey is an expert on Raleigh’s African American history. She notes that there was no public library here for people of color until 1935, when Mollie Huston Lee, a Columbia grad, took action. Mollie was a librarian at Shaw University, and she started a campaign to raise money for Raleigh’s first storefront library for blacks. “A penny and a book” did its job, and the new library was named for a famous actor named Richard B. Harrison. He was playing “De Lawd” in “The Green Pastures,” with the first all-black cast ever to perform on Broadway. When it was touring, he taught acting at local colleges. In 1935 he became the first African American to appear on the cover of TIME magazine – and that was the year he died.
Wanda was born in Fayetteville. “I was a military brat,” she said, and she helped care for her three siblings while her father was stationed from Germany to Okinawa. She studied at the University of Maryland at College Park, earning degrees in Social Work and Library Science. A librarian from high school steered her into the field, thinking she’d enjoy being a school librarian. So Wanda took every course the university offered in this subject “I fell in love with cataloging,” she said. To earn money for Christmas, she was among four grad students who worked in a library’s children’s section. “And I was hooked,” she said. “I love kids!”
Wanda has one child, a son named Brandon, now 35, who has autism. “Folks know me in the world as ‘Brandon’s mom,'” she said. There were no services for him in the Washington area, and after some research, she said, “we moved to Wake County because it has the best schools for autism, thanks to lobbying by parents. He lives with me and I take him everywhere, from concerts to my speaking engagements.”
Asked about her views on North Carolina’s racial history, she noted that her great-grandmother had been a slave. When she drove from Maryland back to Fayetteville, they passed signs saying “Welcome to Klan Country.” She saw the movie “Green Book,” about a guide for safe travel by African Americans, but said it didn’t go far enough. She said the Green Books “were a valuable tool for anyone traveling throughout the United States, not just the South.” One of her OLLI courses is “Harlem Hellfighters: Black Soldiers in Work War I,” who were hailed as heroes in Paris — awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for valor – but faced harsh segregation again back home.
Wanda said that today Wake County has 23 libraries — open to all — and the Harrison’s rare book collection is named for Mollie Lee, who worked there for 26 years. Wanda is now the regional manager at Harrison and is still a story teller. “I focus more on stories for adults, as opposed to children,” she said, adding that when a national conference a year or so ago for children and adults met at the Cary Theater, she was in charge of touring to schools. Her personal interests include gardening, geneaology, “and quilting as a spectator sport.”
Wanda is president of the Triangle Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, a member of the Black Caucus American Library Association, the Wake County and N.C. Autism Societies, and the N.C. and National Associations of Black Storytellers.
This spring at OLLI, Wanda is teaching “Cultural Landscapes: Raleigh’s Historic African American Neighborhoods.” No surprise: It’s attracted a full house.
~ Barbara Haddad Ryan
Barbara is a long time OLLI member and member of the OLLI Voices team. She graduated with an English degree with honors from Swarthmore College and went on to achieve a Masters with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Her career began at the Denver Post, 1962-1976: were she held various posts including feature writer, art critic, classical music critic, “first female editorial writer on a major Western daily” and TV Critic and columnist on this newspaper for five years.
Subsequent moves in her fascinating career were as political reporter and feature writer for the Rocky Mountain News (Scripps-Howard daily) from 1976-1982, Public Information Officer for the State of Colorado Office of Energy Conservation from 1982-1986, Associate Vice President for External Affairs, Swarthmore College from 1992-2000, Public Affairs Director for the National HQ of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Washington D.C. from 2000-2006