The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library opened in May 2013. Photo: Richard Friedman
The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library at 1901 Russell St. on its opening day in May 2013. Photo: Richard Friedman
The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library at 1901 Russell St. on its opening day in May 2013. Photo: Richard Friedman

The Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) will hold a special session Thursday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m. to make a final decision on a community proposal to rename the South Branch library after a local activist.

At its April 22 meeting, BOLT considered the petition to rename the branch at 1901 Russell Street after the late Tarea Hall Pittman, a black civil-rights leader and radio host who lived nearby. The five members heard impassioned speeches from community members and ultimately voted 3-2 against a motion to suspend the library naming policy, which would have allowed them to vote on the proposal.

Two of the trustees who voted against the motion, Julie Holcomb and Jim Novosel, were up for reappointment at the April 28 council meeting.

At that meeting, Councilman Laurie Capitelli pushed the item to the June meeting to allow for further discussions about the name change.

“I realize that there are a lot of people here tonight to support Ms. Pittman and I think probably a lot of frustration in the audience coming from last Wednesday’s meeting,” he said. “I think people of goodwill are reaching out to one another. I think we’re going to find a path forward.”

At the public special meeting this week, BOLT will vote on changing the library naming policy, which went into effect in 2012, and make a final decision about the proposal to name the branch after Pittman, said Director of Library Services Jeff Scott.

The current policy says all libraries should be named after their geographic locations, except in “rare instances” where there is strong consensus, the new name is uncontroversial, and the honoree has “dedicated a substantial amount of energy, time, resources, leadership and/or volunteer service to improve and benefit” the library, among other criteria.

There is also a requirement that the petitioning group has to pay the costs associated with the name change.

The proposed policy change would lift that rule and “would remove the requirement that the individual in question have a connection with the library,” Scott said in an email.

The effort to rename the South Branch is being led by Charles Austin, who lives across the street from the library and collected over 2,000 signatures in support of his cause. Council unanimously endorsed the name change in February. [Efforts to reach Austin for a comment for this story have so far proved unsuccessful.]

Charles Austin (center) stands in front of the South Branch library with other South Berkeley residents in February, petitioning to name the branch after Tarea Hall Pittman. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Charles Austin (center) stands in front of the South Branch library with other South Berkeley residents in February, petitioning to name the branch after Tarea Hall Pittman. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Pittman attended UC Berkeley, where she and other black students were banned from living in the dorms. After college, she became a leader of the local and regional NAACP chapters, working to successfully desegregate the Oakland Fire Department and end discriminatory hiring practices, and lobbying to pass the state’s Fair Employment Practice bill. She also hosted a popular radio show called “Negroes in the News.”

Regardless of her general merit, Pittman does not qualify under the library naming policy, said some BOLT members at the April 22 meeting.

“There was complete consensus among the board members that it’s in the public interest to name our libraries after geographical location, not after individuals,” Holcomb said. She said Berkeley Councilman Daryl Moore, now a strong advocate of changing the name, initially agreed with the BOLT majority.

Moore said they were “wasting the public’s time” by rehashing history.

“The policy is only a year old and it’s not working,” he said. “Charles…educated me. As the African-American population decreases in Berkeley, I think this is a real important opportunity to recognize someone in our community who has done as much as she has done. It’s a no-brainer. The Board of Library Trustees shouldn’t stand in front of our community.”

The crowd cheered when Moore said, “Racism is alive and well in Berkeley.”

Some members of the public yelled, “Yes it is!”

The discussion among the board members followed an hour of speeches by community members, many of whom knew Pittman, who died in 1991.

Richie Smith recalled moving to Berkeley as a teenager in 1949. As a Berkeley High student she studied at the South Branch library and listened to Pittman’s radio program with her family.

“That was where I learned most of my black history, by listening to Tarea Hall Pittman. I think it should be most fitting to name this library” after her, Smith said.

Former City Councilwoman Carole Kennerly — the first Black woman to be elected to the body — said she has “advanced on the shoulders of women like Tarea Hall Pittman.”

“This is not a controversial proposal,” Kennerly said. “Renaming the branch to honor Ms. Pittman signals to all young people and the community at large the value of quality public education for all. Let us not forget that, not too long ago, the public libraries were segregated. And it was the voice of black media, and especially the voice of radio personalities like Tarea Hall Pittman, that pressured to make the change. So all of us owe a debt of gratitude.”

Some speakers referenced the history of segregation in Berkeley, where blacks were often relegated to live in South Berkeley. 

At the end of the BOLT meeting, Moore encouraged attendees to write to their council members and ask them not to reappoint Holcomb and Novosel.

At the council meeting, BOLT Chair Abigail Franklin, who voted against Moore’s motion to suspend the naming policy, asked council to reappoint Holcomb and Novosel.

“They have been diligent and hardworking on this board, and just a month ago our entire board voted unanimously to have them continue their services for another four years,” she said.

BOLT members are appointed by the city council and serve four-year terms.

Op-ed: The Berkeley Library should apply larger view in naming its buildings (04.22.15)
Neighbors petition to rename Berkeley’s South Branch Library after civil-rights leader (05.04.15)
Berkeley council on protests, police body cameras, gender-neutral restrooms, more (02.10.15)
New South Branch library to open in Berkeley on Saturday (05.09.13)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...