To observe the centennial of the Main Library’s 1918 opening, Sacramento Room staff assembled an assortment of documents, ephemera and artifacts. One item of particular interest was the library card of a girl named Maud Dorsey. When her card was issued on February 20, 1889, she was living at 612 F Street, right in the heart of Alkali Flat, a neighborhood that was quickly changing from a hub of the upper class to one dominated by skilled blue collar workers. She was the youngest of three children and the daughter of James and Ella Dorsey. James had been a blacksmith at the Southern Pacific railroad shops, but eventually became pastor at the St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church at 715 Seventh St. Ella was a homemaker.
Maud would have been 12 at the time of the card’s issuance and a student at Union School at Seventh and G Streets. One can take a look through the Library’s full coverage of the Sacramento Bee
(1857-current) to learn of her successful recitations of “Another Christmas” and “Two Little Kittens” while also tracing her steady rise through the primary
grades. It’s also important to mention that Sacramento public schools had been integrated since 1874. Maud was, in fact, African American and one of 62 African American children in the city school system, according to an 1890 census of Sacramento public school students.
Little did we know that peeling away the proverbial layers of an item as seemingly benign as a library card could reveal both a bit about a little girl in Gilded Age Sacramento and help us understand the democratizing role of the early free library. While there were businesses and certainly sections of Sacramento that she was forbidden to enter, Maud could still walk from her home at Sixth and G and enter the front door of the Free Library at 714 I Street in just a matter of minutes. Everything Maud needed – worship, education and, of course, the escape of the public library – was just a quick walk away.
Sadly, we also discovered that Maud didn’t live long after getting her library card, passing away in November 1891 at the age of 14 from what records at the Old City Cemetery refer to as “exhaustion.” In a time predating many of the cures that we benefit from today, this is not surprising.
Sacramento’s African American population remained small throughout the rest of the 19th
-century and up to the mid-20th century. The Capital City’s industrial and military emergence during World War II changed all of that. To learn more, the Sacramento Room possesses several core resources on the African-American experience in Sacramento, including:
This article featured in the January 2019 issue of History in the Making. Subscribe
James Scott has been a reference librarian with the Sacramento Public Library since 2000. For most of that period, he has worked in the Sacramento Room
, where he has co-authored four books on Sacramento history.