The Library: An American Place

by Bill Peak

Ron McNair was only the second African American to be named to NASA's elite team of astronauts, which means he was already something of a pioneer when he blasted off with Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger in January of 1986. But even as a child, McNair had proven his mettle as a trailblazer.

By the time he was nine, little Ron had long since noticed that his parents' voices grew hushed and reverential whenever they mentioned “the library.” Curious, he set out on foot one day to see what made the place so special. When, finally, he reached the august building, he was surprised to discover it full of books. In the way of children, for a while he just watched. Then, once he'd seen how others did it, he chose three books for himself and walked proudly up to the check-out desk. But the lady behind the desk just shook her head. Though he'd seen children borrowing books, she told him he could not. Indeed, she said it was illegal for him to even come into the library; he would have to leave.

And so it was that on an otherwise pleasant day in South Carolina in 1959, little Ron McNair made the acquaintance of Jim Crow. Understandably, the experience confused him; and instead of leaving he just stood there, looking up at the woman behind the desk, then down at the books he so longed to read. At which point the woman apparently lost it. She told the child that if he didn't exit the premises immediately, she would not only call his mother, she would call the police as well.

Well there must have been something about the idea of his mother being called that appealed to Ron because he stood his ground; and police and mother were promptly summoned. Two burly officers of the law soon stormed into the library and demanded to know where the disturbance was. You can imagine their surprise when they were shown the child. “Oh come on, lady,” one of them said, “why don't you just check the books out to the kid?” By this time McNair's mother had arrived as well. “He's a good little boy,” she said, “I promise he'll return them on time.” Outnumbered, the woman behind the desk acquiesced.

After her son had received his books, each with their new due date stamped on a little flap inside the back cover, Mrs. McNair prompted her child, “What do you say?” The future astronaut looked up at the woman behind the desk and said, “Thank you.”

History is a great teacher. Even back then, even in the bad old days when people actually believed in the manifest absurdity of racial inequality, libraries brought people together, gave people the opportunity to examine their prejudices in the light of face-to-face experience. And the work goes on. Every day people of every faith and hue sit side-by-side in the Talbot County Free Library typing on computers, reading books, watching their children play together. The library shows us the best in ourselves. It's what America is all about.

Oh, and one other thing ... This past January, on the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, they named that library in South Carolina after Ron McNair.