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Sat, 04.01.1911

Augusta Baker, mistress of storytelling

A labor of Love!

Augusta Braxton Baker, an African American librarian and storyteller, was born on this date in 1911.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Braxton was the only child of parents who introduced her to the joys of reading at an early age.  At age 16, she finished high school and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. She married at the end of her sophomore year, transferring to the New York College for Teachers in Albany, New York. Baker received a B.A. (1933) in education and a B.S. (1934) in library science from that college, moving to New York City soon after.

Baker taught for a few years, but in 1937, she became a children's librarian at the 135th Street Branch (now the Countee Cullen Regional Branch) of the New York Public Library (NYPL). Appalled by the depiction of Black characters in the fiction available then to Black children, Baker amassed a collection of books that would provide inspiring Black role models that presented an accurate view of African-American life to young people. This project started in 1939, and ended in the branch's James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Baker's dedication to this cause helped produce the children's authors she was looking for and publishers eager to circulate them.

In 1957, "Books About Negro Life for Children," the bibliography of the collection was published; it contained hundreds of book titles. Baker discovered her gift for storytelling, an endeavor supported by the NYPL. In 1953, she was appointed "storytelling specialist," and two years later, "Talking Tree," the first of what would be four collections of stories by Baker, was published. A promotion in 1961 made Baker coordinator of children's services in all 82 branches of the NYPL.

She held that post for 13 years, strengthened the library's collection by adding audiovisual materials, and in the process, brought her vision to the outside world. She became a consultant to television's Sesame Street and began to teach and lecture extensively on storytelling and children's literature. Baker retired from her library work after 37 years. In 1980, she was appointed storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, a position she held for more than a decade. Baker died on February 23, 1999, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Reference:
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

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