Reference Entry

Baker, Augusta Braxton

DaMaris B. Hill

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Baker, Augusta Braxton

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storyteller, librarian, and author, was born Augusta Braxton in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child of two educators, Winford J. and Mabel Braxton. Her father later became a wood craftsman, and her mother retired from formal teaching to raise her daughter. Baker skipped at least two grades in elementary school and might have skipped more—she explained later in an interview with Robert V. Williams—if her father hadn't insisted that she be educated among her peers. Baker's maternal grandmother, Augusta Fax Gough, was an integral part of-Baker's childhood and found that the only means of quieting the young Baker was to entertain her through storytelling. These beloved experiences with storytelling would become the catalysts for a career in storytelling and would inspire Baker to write children's literature.At age sixteen Baker was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh. She did well with the academic material, despite the death of her father during her freshman year, but struggled with personal relationships since she was much younger than many of her peers. Raised in segregated Baltimore, Baker had difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships with white students. She met and married her first husband, James Baker, a graduate student in social work at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a fellow of the Urban League and assigned to establish the Albany Interracial Council in New York. Baker transferred to the Albany State Teacher's College, first pursuing a degree in education and later in library sciences.Her experiences in confronting racial boundaries began at Albany State Teacher's College, where during her admission interview Baker was informed that she would do her practicum not at the affiliated high school attended by the professors' children, but instead at a local black elementary school. Clearly, Baker thought, Albany State Teacher's College was hesitant to admit her. In response she wrote to the administrative body at the University of Pittsburgh about the situation. Her husband, James Baker, also informed his supervisor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wife, about the college's decision to place Baker at a black elementary school, as opposed to the prestigious high school. The wife of then New York governor, Mrs. Roosevelt was able to pressure Albany State Teacher's College to admit Baker on the same terms that they admitted all other students. In addition, the University of Pittsburgh wrote a letter on Baker's behalf, demanding that she be admitted and receive the same treatment as the college's white students.After graduating in 1933 with BAs in both Education and Library Science, she applied for a position with the New York Public Library (NYPL) system. As the Depression still gripped the country and few jobs existed, Baker's husband discouraged her from taking a job that might deny support from families in greater need. He believed that his well-paying job with the Urban League afforded his family a decent lifestyle during the harsh economic times. So for the next three years Baker labored at home as a devoted wife and mother of her only son, James H. Baker Iii. In February 1937 she received a letter from Anne Carroll Moore, head of the Children's Division at NYPL. Moore offered Baker a position as a children's librarian at the Harlem branch.At the time, libraries were the cultural hubs in their communities, hosting plays, literary events, and community gatherings, and serving as a safe harbor for young adults who wished to escape the rough streets of Harlem. Baker was working closely with Arthur Alfonso Schomburg to establish and maintain black materials that were housed on the third floor of the library (Schomburg Collection). During these times Baker became acquainted with a young James Baldwin, who naturally gravitated to this section of library. He was often found among the stacks of black literature and culture; Baker was immediately notified. She was considered the authority on children in this unique environment, and was, in fact, called several times a day to collect children from other sections of the library. Admiring Baldwin's interests in African American history and literature, she became an advocate on the child's behalf. Though Dr. Schomburg was fairly permissive, the administration discouraged children in those sections reserved for adults, particularly in areas housing research material. Nevertheless, from time to time Baldwin was permitted to peruse the collection.In 1953 Baker began working for the NYPL in an administrative capacity. She became the first black administrator as storytelling specialist and assistant coordinator of Children's Services of the NYPL. That same year she advised and helped establish the Children's Library Service for the Trinidad Public Library. Within a few years she began to publish her first set of children's books. She also began to promote her philosophies about negative versus positive images of African Americans in children's literature to a number of children's authors and book publishers, expressing her concerns about the psychological impact of such literature and advocating for it to be removed from the children's section of public libraries. Soon the types of books Baker encouraged began to be published widely. In addition to adding to her own collection, she began to compile a bibliography titled Books about Negro Life for Children, still widely used in many library systems around the world. She also organized and established the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at the Countée Cullen Regional Branch of the NYPL. In 1961 she was promoted to coordinator of children's services for the entire NYPL system, where she became one of the first to incorporate audiovisual materials into general circulation. She became a consultant for the children's program Sesame Street and in 1971 began broadcasting a weekly series, The World of Children's Literature, for WNYC Radio. Later she taught a number of courses in storytelling and children's literature at Syracuse University. She retired from the NYPL in 1974 and lived in Queens, New York, with her second husband, Gordon Alexander.After serving fifteen years as a visiting lecturer for the state and local levels of the public school systems in South Carolina and the university, Baker conceded and, in 1980, accepted an appointment as storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. It was the first position of its kind at any university. She served on various advisory boards at the University of South Carolina and other institutions in the state in order to serve students of historically black colleges and universities, South Carolina State University, and Bennett College. Baker's honors include the Parents Magazine Medal, the Constance Lindsay Skinner Award from the Women's National Book Association, and a Distinguished Services Award from the Association of Library Services to Children of the American Library Association.

Reference Entry.  1153 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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