New signage on the Tarea Hall Pittman Library makes the name change official — after a long wait. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

New signage above the former South Branch library makes its name change — to the Tarea Hall Pittman library — official. The sign was the final objective of the neighborhood activists who fought for the library to be renamed after the civil-rights leader.

A new permanent exhibit inside the library complements the signage, displaying photographs of, and facts about, Pittman on a screen near where patrons enter the building.

The effort to rename the branch began around the time of its remodeling in 2013, when late activist Charles Austin, who lived across the street from the branch, at MLK Jr. Way and Russell Street, saw an opportunity to honor local African-American history. Pittman (1903-1991) had lived in the library’s neighborhood at a time when Berkeley’s black population was confined to homes west of MLK, then called Grove Street. She became active in the local NAACP chapter and hosted a popular radio program called “Negroes in the News.”

Despite gathering 2,000 signatures and earning support for the name change from the City Council in 2015, Austin and his friends clashed with the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), who said renaming the branch would break a longtime library policy against naming buildings after individuals. BOLT ultimately reversed its vote, approving the name change in mid-2015. But the building did not get its new sign until this month, and the long delay caused some consternation.

“We’re very, very pleased that it’s finally completed,” said acting library director Elliot Warren.

The library enlisted the vendor who created the building’s former sign to make big black and yellow block letters in the same style, Warren said. The west side of the building now says “Tarea Hall Pittman” and the south side, around the corner, kept its “Library” sign.

A new digital display educates patrons about Pittman’s legacy. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The neighbors who pushed for the branch to be renamed blamed the signage delay on neglect by former library leadership. In April, the City Council majority ousted two former BOLT members, calling for a “fresh start” following a controversy over “book weeding,” allegations of retaliation against dissatisfied staff and lack of action around the Tarea Hall Pittman sign. Those who opposed the ouster said it was politically motivated and said it set a dangerous precedent of city involvement in library business.

The former BOLT members rejected the neighbors’ claims that library leaders were disrespecting their effort by delaying the signage. They said strict city zoning laws did not allow a large sign.

In March, Councilwoman Sophie Hahn introduced an amendment to the city code, paving the way for the signage effort to move forward. The work was completed in early October.

“It’s something I think is really important for the community. There was a lot of anticipation and excitement,” Hahn said of the new sign Monday. “I think that the new library administrators took it seriously.”

Hahn also serves on BOLT — which meets at the Tarea Hall Pittman branch — and supported the ouster of the former board members.

On a recent afternoon at the library, many patrons admitted they had not taken note of the new signage, but some of the neighbors who campaigned for the name change, including Austin’s widow, Carmelita Garner, and good friend Willie Phillips, were busy planning a celebration with head librarian Heather Cummins.

Phillips, who has lived in South Berkeley for 62 years, said the delay in getting the signage approved and up was the greatest challenge the activists faced.

“I was just telling one of the librarians it’s about time,” said Phillips, laughing. The name change and signage “is symbolic of African Americans in South Berkeley,” he said. “What [Austin] was able to do was recognize someone who played a really remarkable role in terms of Berkeley’s dynamics and the covenants that exist. It’s about time for people to recognize that Berkeley is not always what it seems. There are contradictions. South Berkeley is going through another change, and the people who Tarea Hall Pittman symbolizes are no longer able to live in Berkeley. Their families are being displaced.”

Phillips joked that Austin would have called the upcoming celebration a “gathering,” not a “party,” because, in the late activist’s mind, the latter required alcoholic drinks. The library event, on Sat., Nov. 18, at 12:30 p.m., will be more of a family-friendly affair.

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,...