Marvin Jones is holding out hope an important artifact from Hertford and Gates county history discovered just across the state line in Virginia will someday return home.
About 10 years ago, Jones, executive director of Chowan Discovery, said he located the 1938 station wagon education pioneer Katie Hart used a bookmobile to loan books to African-American residents, especially students, of Hertford and Gates counties.
Back in 1939, Hart turned her private library collection into the Hertford County Colored Public Library. The library was in operation from 1939 to 1969 until it merged with the Albemarle Regional Library. During its existence Hart’s library was the only public library for people of color in northeastern North Carolina during the Jim Crow era.
But Hart’s library was more than just a building, Jones told the audience for Museum of the Albemarle’s virtual History for Lunch program Wednesday. Hart, who is part of the museum’s “Women Breaking Barriers in Northeastern North Carolina” exhibit, also used a 1938 station wagon as a bookmobile. Jones said he learned of its location from an old article he found in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
“I found the owner and I looked him up and he allowed me to see the bookmobile,” Jones said.
Jones was shocked to find the bookmobile in excellent condition and he immediately took out his camera and snapped dozens of pictures.
“It has shelves inside and I photographed it from all angles, from the inside and from the front and back and so on,” Jones said. “It may be the only African-American bookmobile in the nation that is still in existence.”
Jones made an offer to buy the bookmobile but the owner wasn’t interested in selling. The vehicle’s owner did say he would be willing to loan it to Hertford County if it could find an adequate place to display it.
Jones contacted several people on the Hertford library board at the time but those discussions went nowhere.
“You need a committee behind you when you make a request like that,” Jones said.
Jones hasn’t given up on bring the bookmobile back to Hertford and said people interested in helping the effort should contact him at Chowan Discovery. He was joined for Wednesday’s presentation by Hertford County resident and current Cultivator Bookmobile owner Caroline Stephenson.
“Caroline and I and others are looking for the means to bring the bookmobile back to Hertford County,” Jones said. “I don’t know if it runs and it doesn’t need to run. It just needs to be on display. If anyone has any ideas on how to do that or other suggestions, we are very open to it.”
Stephenson said finding Hart’s bookmobile was a “miracle.”
“We want to get (Hart’s) bookmobile back home,” Stephenson said. “It’s amazing that her original vehicle from the late 1930s is still here.”
Hart’s bookmobile was a lending service that made stops all over the two counties. There were even a few times when Hart had to go collect overdue books.
One such trip was to see Ben Watford. Watford, a retired math professor who is now a renowned potter in Hertford, received a visit at when he was a child at his home by Hart who was in search of several overdue books, Stephenson said.
“Watford has great stories in his book about Katie Hart coming to his house and asking for him to return the books he had borrowed from the bookmobile,” Stephenson said. “The books were so precious to him and he had them hidden away under his bed, apparently. It shows the power of books and how important they were to him.”