Miriam Matthews, 97; Pioneering L.A. Librarian Was an Expert in Black History

Times Staff Writer

Miriam Matthews, the first black librarian for the city of Los Angeles, and believed to be the first in California, who became an expert on preserving and describing black history, has died. She was 97.

Matthews, who worked for the Los Angeles Public Library from 1927 to 1960, died June 23 at the Sunrise assisted-living facility in Mercer Island, Wash., of causes associated with aging. She had moved to the Seattle-area island in 1996 to be close to her nephew, Charles H. Matthews Jr., and his family.

Committed to preserving black history in California, she began a pioneering effort in Los Angeles in 1929 to promote observation of what was then Negro History Week, now Black History Month. She had remained a key resource in the annual celebration.


Matthews was working at the city’s Helen Hunt Jackson Branch Library early in her career when she discovered “a small collection of books on the Negro” and became intrigued. She began building her own collection of materials and started researching various ways blacks had put their stamp on the Golden State.

The librarian herself became a special resource, as county library official Binnie Tate Wilkin told The Times in 1983.

“Libraries cannot begin to duplicate the kind of research that she has here in her home,” said Wilkin, “like wanting to know about some of the blacks who were early settlers in California. We can come to Miriam, and she digs through all of her files and her resources and helps us to give answers.”

When Los Angeles celebrated its bicentennial Sept. 4, 1981, Matthews worked to create a monument at El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park listing all 44 of the original city founders by name, race, sex and age -- 26 blacks, 16 Indians and two whites.

Matthews turned some of her research materials into the 1944 USC paper “The Negro in California from 1781-1910: An Annotated Bibliography.” Among her other writings are “Race Relations on the Pacific Coast: A Select Bibliography,” “Library Activities in the Field of Race Relations” and “William Grant Still: Composer.”

Over the last two decades, Matthews also became widely known for her collection of works by black painters, sculptors and other artists. Among her treasures were Charles White’s “I’ve Known Rivers” and Elizabeth Catlett’s bronze “Glory.”


Matthews loaned her artworks to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Dunbar Black Museum, the Long Beach Art Museum and other institutions.

Active with more than 50 committees and groups benefiting libraries, black history and youth, Matthews worked on the California Heritage Preservation Commission and in 1979 played a major role in establishing an archive program for the city of Los Angeles.

Born in Pensacola, Fla., on Aug. 6, 1905, she moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was a toddler. She earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1926 and her certificate of librarianship a year later.

Despite subtle attempts to prevent Matthews, because of her color, from knowing when a required Civil Service examination would be offered, she learned the date, passed the test and was hired in July 1927 as a Los Angeles substitute librarian. Within three months, she became a full-time librarian at the city’s Robert Louis Stevenson Branch.

When no more promotions occurred after she had been a branch librarian for 10 years, Matthews took a leave to get a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. Soon after her return to Los Angeles she was promoted to regional librarian, supervising a dozen branch libraries.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. James Episcopal Church, 3903 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.


Matthews requested that, instead of flowers, any memorial contributions be sent to the United Negro College Fund in care of its local office, 3699 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 675, Los Angeles, CA 90010.