In 1927, with a groundbreaking spirit and a commitment to literacy and community empowerment, the Rev. John L. Dart family opened the first free public library for African-Americans in Charleston. The library started as a reading room at the Charleston Normal and Industrial School, a school founded by Dart in 1894 to educate black children crowded out of the city’s segregated schools.
Dart’s daughter, Susan Dart Butler, established the library, providing free access to her father’s extensive collection of books. Through her efforts, it became a community resource for music, politics and literacy. The Kracke Street library drew the attention of the Rosenwald Fund, which provided money to the community to establish a Free Library. When the Charleston Free Library opened in 1931, the Dart family leased the building to the county for $1 per year. The library’s collection grew to 3,600 books with three librarians, including Butler. In 1952, the county purchased Dart Hall, operating it as a library until 1968 when the current John L. Dart Branch Library opened at 1067 King Street.
Born in Charleston in 1854 as a free black man, Dart spent his life as a champion of change and civil rights. An educated man, Dart understood the economic and racial stratification of the time and believed education was a way to empower area blacks.
Valedictorian of his 1872 graduating class at Avery Institute, Dart went on to receive a master’s degree and became an ordained Baptist minister. He served as pastor of Morris Street Baptist Church for 16 years and at Shiloh Baptist Church for 10 years.
Dart founded the Charleston Normal and Industrial School because the area’s black schools were overcrowded, but he strongly believed the city of Charleston should pay for the education of black children, just as it did for whites. Dart worked to convince city officials, and in 1911, the city began to fund the school, which became the basis for Burke Industrial School and the current-day Burke High School.
Although Dart died in 1915, the legacy of this distinguished educator, religious leader and philanthropist continues today at the John L. Dart Branch of the Charleston County Public Library system.