History in the Making

Hattye Yarbrough, ML'66, has gifted her collection of African American was memorabilia to the Smithsonian. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

As a high school student living with her aunt’s family in Paris, Tennessee, Hattye Thomas Yarbrough inherited a room with a bookcase full of books by African American authors. Works by civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, poet Langston Hughes, writer W.E.B. DuBois, and copies of magazines and newspapers such as the Negro Digest and the Chicago Defender opened up a new world for the teen.

“Out of that experience,” she said, “I told myself that there would never be a child growing up around me who would not know that we’ve made a difference as African Americans in this country.”

Honored in 1989 as one of President George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light for her efforts as a black history advocate in her Covington, Tennessee, community, the 93-year-old retired librarian and teacher is adding to her legacy. Her World War II scrapbook has been accepted as part of the foundational collection of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., set to open in 2016.

During the summer of 1943, Yarbrough worked at the soda fountain at the Camp Tyson Army base just outside of Paris, Tennessee.

“I collected pictures, insignias and patches from military men on the troop trains, those who came into our town for recreation or church, those who came to our house or to Lane College, where I was a student,” Yarbrough said. “Wherever soldiers were traveling, I would ask them their names, hometowns, branch of service. It’s all written into the scrapbook.”

One particular soldier sent her rocks from the Normandy beaches with the D-Day date of June 6, 1944, written on them, along with spent shell casings. She continued to keep the scrapbook, which also includes photos, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, throughout her time working at the Waynesville Junction USO near Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, following her graduation from Lane.

There, Yarbrough, an aspiring artist, helped the painter Samuel Countee create a backdrop for a play by one of the soldiers stationed there—Ossie Davis, who went on to great fame as an actor, director and playwright.

“He would tell us he was going to make it big one day, and we’d say, ‘yeah, right.’ We didn’t believe him,” she said.

Yarbrough received her Tennessee library teacher certification at Fisk University studying with Arna Bontemps, a noted poet and member of the Harlem Renaissance.

When she arrived at Peabody in 1964 to begin summer courses that would lead to her master of library science degree, it was the first year that African American students were allowed to live in the dormitories.

Yarbrough, who continues to actively serve as a commissioner for public housing in Covington and is on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity of Tipton County, continues to work to correct American history’s omission of African Americans.

“Any time someone invites me to speak about the contributions of African Americans to the history of America, I always tell them,” she said, “that I was taught at Peabody that it isn’t the person who knows the most facts who is the best educated. It’s the person who knows how to find the facts when they need them.”