As an active participant in shaping the history of Los Angeles, Miriam Matthews came of age, attended college, and began working when the city’s African-American residents began making their political and cultural impact regionally and nationally.
Today, Matthews is most remembered for her work preserving the history of black Californians’ contributions to the state and the nation as a history chronicler and a collector of African-American art and other materials. Less remembered is her work fighting for intellectual freedom.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 2 in 1907. Like many others, Matthews’ parents moved to California to make a better life for themselves and to raise their children in a place where they could escape the limits of the segregated atmosphere of northern Florida’s Gulf Coast.
She was born into an educated, civically engaged and entrepreneurial family with one grandfather who held Reconstruction-era political appointments as a postmaster and county commissioner, and parents who ran a painting contractor business. Matthews built on the foundation laid by her ancestors.
A librarian for 33 years in the Los Angeles Public Library system, Matthews served her profession, her community and the nation, as the first black professionally trained librarian hired in California.
She got the job in 1927 despite efforts to keep her from knowing when the required civil service exam would be offered. In 1940, she was part of an exchange program between the New York and Los Angeles public library systems, carrying suggestions for better practices back and forth.
Despite the racism and a lack of acknowledgement of her capabilities, Matthews rose through the ranks to serve with distinction in four posts as branch librarian. In 1949, after scoring first on the civil service list, she became one of the first six regional librarians supervising 12 branches until her retirement in 1960. Throughout her career and afterwards, she worked on various civic service and paid consulting projects around her interests and expertise.
Matthews’ early education was in the public schools of Los Angeles where she excelled in spite of a few racist incidents with teachers where her parents had to intervene to correct the situations. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1926 and her librarianship certificate a year later. Graduate studies at USC from 1934 to 1944 led to Matthews earning a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1945.
In Los Angeles, she was a pioneer in promoting the observance of Negro History Week in 1929, just three years after Carter G. Woodson initiated the program.
It was around this time that she first learned there were books on Negro history from a small book collection housed at the Helen Hunt Jackson Branch Library where she then worked. Matthews dived into reading the books, some which featured information about black Californians.
Energized by the new knowledge about African-American history, Matthews began her lifelong efforts in public speaking, writing articles and developing exhibits and speakers programs with an emphasis on Afro California for library events and programming at other places.
She began a five-year period reviewing books, some of them about black culture, for popular Los Angeles radio stations KHJ and KFL. Matthews capitalized on her role as then California’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) membership chairwoman to sign up teachers who became an audience, along with their students, for the programming she was involved with and the association’s informative publications. Matthews joined others doing this work in the forefront of the ethnic studies movement, which then was in its infancy.
She first gained national recognition for her work with the American Library Association and the California Library Association in the late 1940s. She was a member simultaneously of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the national body and California Library Association. She headed the California Library Association committee from 1946 to 1948, during the time of state Sen. Jack Tenney’s California Committee on Un-American Activities, which predated U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House committee. Supporters of intellectual freedom quickly moved to action when the “Tenney Committee,” with its “war on books and ideas,” began to investigate well-known authors such as Carey McWilliams, Langston Hughes and Sherwood Anderson.
Under Matthews’ leadership, the California Library Association battled against anti-Communist censorship to defend certain textbooks used in schools across the nation and oppose legislation designed to suppress the freedom to read and instruction in controversial subjects, which was in direct conflict with the basic principle of education. They defended employees refusal to sign a loyalty oath with items which violated their civil rights.
The committee’s work became the basis for the revised American Library Association’s Bill of Rights in 1948. Co-authored by Matthews, 25,000 copies of “The Right to Find Out” pamphlet were distributed at the American Library Association and the National Education Association conventions that year.
After becoming committed to the preservation and interpretation of the history of African Americans, Matthews began in the 1940s to build an extensive personal collection of books, documents and photographs on black California. Over the years, photographs from her collection have appeared in numerous exhibits and publications and she responded to many request across the country for information.
She and Titus Alexander were consultants, providing invaluable historical research for the subjects in the Charles Alston and Hal Woodruff 1940 mural commission “The Negro In California History” for the new Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company’s home office building designed by architect Paul R. Williams.
Matthews spoke at the building’s opening in 1949 in support of the company’s community development effort to encourage black people to greater accomplishment through celebrating and recognizing Afro California heritage.
In the early years of the California Heritage Preservation Commission in 1977, Matthews served as a member and pushed for the recognition and designation of several African-American sites as historical cultural monuments. She was a leader in the implementation of the permanent archival program for the city of Los Angeles when she served on the California Historical Records Educational and Consultant Service Committee from 1979 to 1981.
An important contribution to the public reclamation of this heritage was Matthews’ role as a member of the Los Angeles Bicentennial Celebration Committee in 1980 and 1981. She proposed and fought to have a monument erected honoring the 44 founders of the city, which listed each member of the 11 families by name, race, sex and age from the official Spanish Census of 1781.
With the recognition that the overwhelming majority of the original founders of Los Angeles were of African ancestry, the monument now stands in the plaza of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, along with a small plaque which acknowledges Matthews’ role in chairing the project.
During her lifetime, Matthews greatly enjoyed the extensive art collection of black artists’ works she acquired and shared with various cultural institutions. Beginning with the support of sculptor Beulah Woodard and painter Alice T. Gafford in the 1930s, she financially sponsored several artists. Her collection included pieces by such African-American artists as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barte, Betty Saar, Suzanne Jackson and Nathaniel Bustion.
Matthews’ work was a social justice strategy with transformative powers for the empowerment of black people and the development of more inclusive American cultural, political, personal, national and international identities and history. Her visionary leadership and contributions as an archivist, community activist, serious researcher and fine art collector have been honored in perpetuity in different ways by several institutions she worked with and touched in her life’s work, including in 2004 the renaming of a Los Angeles City Library Branch in South Los Angeles in her memory a year after she died.
Her labor of interpretation and documentation of the African American experience showcased in her body of work and archives housed at UCLA and the people inspired by all she did, continues her efforts of restoration, reclamation of a fuller, more diverse, and accurate past for the present and the future.
Next Week: Gilbert W. Lindsay, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Great 9th District,” had a few careers in his life, but he’s best remembered for being the first African-American city council person in Los Angeles.