t. walter rollins

Charlemae Hill Rollins

Charlemae Hill Rollins (June 20, 1897-February 3, 1979) was a pioneering librarian, author and storyteller in the area of African-American literature. During her thirty-one years as head librarian of the children’s department at the Chicago Public Library as well as after retirement, she instituted substantial reforms in children’s literature.


Rollins was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, to Allen G. Hill, a farmer, and Birdie Tucker Hill, a teacher. Her family moved to Beggs in Oklahoma Territory hoping to find better living conditions, but discovered that black children were excluded from attending school. Undeterred, Rollins’s family founded a school, which she attended.

After completing her elementary education, Rollins attended black high schools in St Louis, Missouri; Holly Springs, Mississippi; and Quindoro, Kansas, where she graduated in 1916. After earning her teaching certificate, she taught at the school her family had set up before leaving to attend Howard University. She returned after a year to marry Joseph Walter Rollins on April 8, 1918.The couple moved to Chicago in 1919, after Joseph returned from World War I. Their son, Joseph Walter Rollins, Jr., was born in 1920.

Rollins became a children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library in 1927. Initially she began at the Hardin Square Branch Library, where she became known as a prolific storyteller. She also began teaching a course in Children’s Literature at Roosevelt University in 1946. She also taught at Morgan College and summers at Fisk University.

Chicago’s black population swelled as more families moved north for better education, work and living conditions. There was no library for the community until the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library opened in 1932. The first founded in a black neighborhood, the library had a variety of patrons from various social levels. Rollins became the head of the children’s department, where she worked until retiring in 1963.

Rollins worked with the library director, Vivian Harsh, to make the library welcoming to the socioeconomic multiethnic community Under their guidance, the library had discussion groups, lectures, a Negro History Club, and book fairs. In addition to her work with children, Rollins also set up a reading guidance clinic for parents. Many noted black writers visited the library, such as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, and Langston Hughes, with whom Rollins developed a friendship.

Rollins died on February 3, 1979, at the age of 81.

Literature Reforms

Much of the literature available to young children in the earlier half of the twentieth century was rife with stereotypical portrayals of blacks, including false dialects, illustrations, and offensive words. While many libraries nationwide did not have a segregationist agenda, neither were they quick to invite blacks to utilize the collections.

Rollins crusaded to change the content in many children’s and young adult books to accurately portray black life. Her first publication in 1941, We Build Together: A Reader's Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use, is a compilation of books suitable for young black children that sought to eliminate negative black stereotypes. Biographies, nonfiction, and sports genres are represented alongside picture and fiction books for children and young adults.

Rollins was primarily concerned with providing materials that portrayed blacks in a positive light, as well as materials by and about blacks. We Build Together was written to create an index of “books that Negro children could enjoy without self-consciousness, books with which they could identify satisfactorily, books that white children could read and so learn what Negro young people and families were like.”

Rollins was also a noted storyteller. In “The Art of Storytelling,” she wrote, “Storytelling is a wonderful way of breaking down barriers, or getting acquainted with new people, and drawing groups and individuals together.” Her stories were based on positive news articles about blacks, folk tales, or stories her grandmother had told her.

After retiring, Rollins turned her hand to writing. She published Christmas Gif’, an Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written by and about Negroes in 1963. Her passion for storytelling is reflected in the variety of excerpts from Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

The rest of Rollins’s books were biographies, in keeping with her strong sentiment that they were the best kind of books for young children: “[The genre] includes the greatest number of Negro authors. It is here that all children can build a firm foundation of knowledge of and respect for Negroes. They will be prepared for the first introduction to the concept of different skin color…They now can feel that America is indeed their country”


Rollins served as president of the Children’s Services Division of the American Library Association from 1957 to 1958. She was the first black librarian to hold the position. She also chaired the Newbery-Caldecott Award Committee in 1956-1957. She also chaired the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Committee for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Rollins also served on the advisory committee for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.


Rollins received an honorary membership in the ALA in 1972. On October 21, 1989, the children’s room at the Hall Branch Library was named in Rollins’ honor. The Charlemae Hill Rollins Colloquium is held twice a year at North Carolina Central University, where attendees discuss how to improve library services for children.

Rollins was also honored by Columbia College in 1974 with a doctorate of humane letters. Despite Rollins’s long career promoting education, this was the first degree she had ever received: “But you can still touch me even now—it’s the only degree I’ve ever had.”


In all, Rollins wrote or co-wrote six books:

  • We Build Together: A Reader's Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use , 1941
  • Christmas Gif’, an Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written by and about Negroes', 1963
  • They Showed the Way: Forty American Negro Leaders, 1964
  • Famous American Negro Poets 1965
  • Famous Negro Entertainers of Stage, Screen, and TV, 1967
  • Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes, 1971

She also edited and contributed to countless other works.



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