It would probably have been easy to thumb past the obituary of Emily Wheelock Reed in the New York Times in May 2000, its headline not really shouting out its significance: “Emily W. Reed, 89, Librarian in ’59 Alabama Racial Dispute.” However, reading on, one realizes the importance of Ms. Reed’s presence as the director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division in 1959—as the dam of segregation in the South was beginning to show cracks of weakness.
In the late 50s, skirmishes were erupting throughout the South as blacks were seeking access to public schools and libraries. These battles had even extended into the areas of books and children’s literature. One Florida segregationist had made headlines for objecting to a book of The Three Little Pigs because the pigs were drawn in different colors.
For Ms. Reed, the book that spurred segregationist outrage was The Rabbits’ Wedding, written and illustrated by Garth Williams and published by Harper & Brothers in 1958. The book, aimed mostly at pre-school children, featured two rabbits—one drawn with white fur, the other drawn with dark fur—and their forest wedding in the moonlight, attended by a diversity of woodland creatures. Targeting the book was The Montgomery Home News of Montgomery, AL, published by the White Citizens Council, a group that defended segregation. In reaction to the attack, Reed had the book placed on the library’s reserve shelves, meaning that visiting librarians could see the book by requesting it, but could not find it on the open shelves.
However, Reed’s action did not stop the assault on her as director. A local state senator sought to have her removed from her post for supporting integration. Reed responded to that attack by stating that her personal beliefs had nothing to do with her job. Undeterred, the senator then introduced legislation that would require the state library chief to be a native of Alabama and a graduate of the University of Alabama or Auburn University. That move would have disqualified Reed who was born in Asheville, NC. She subsequently took a job in 1960 with the Washington, D.C. library system.
Playwright Kenneth Jones did not thumb past that obituary of a librarian, as it turns out, for it became the basis for his play Alabama Story which takes the factual account of Reed’s censorship conflict and creates fictionalized stories around it that add substance to the issues of racial bigotry and injustice. Jones has the real life character of Garth Williams appear as a narrator of sorts and play several minor characters—in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The name of the segregationist state senator has been changed for obvious reasons, but some of the characters’ actions and statements had been noted in newspaper accounts.
Alabama Story had its world premiere in January, 2015, at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, UT in a production directed by Karen Azenberg.
Alabama Story is being given its Tennessee premiere by the Clarence Brown Theatre with an opening on Friday, February 2 (previews on January 31 and February 1), with a run through February 18.
Kate Buckley directs a cast that includes Katie Cunningham as Emily Reed, David Brian Alley as Garth Williams, and Brian Mani as Senator E.W. Higgins. Also in the cast are Jade Arnold, Chris Klopatek, and Brittany Marie Pirozzoli.