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A Pied Piper Of Children's Stories

Librarian Spencer Shaw Became A Pioneer In Storytelling, Collecting Folk Tales

Anne Hamilton

July 18, 2010

As a child, Spencer Shaw and his siblings haunted their local library near their house in Hartford's North End.

The library proved to be a springboard to Shaw's distinguished international career as a librarian and pioneer in storytelling and children's literature.

Though opportunities for blacks were limited in those days, Martha Taylor Shaw and Eugene Shaw wanted their seven children to be prepared when doors "that were closed because of race would be opened."

Eugene Shaw was a clerk in the securities department at Hartford National Bank, and Martha Shaw worked at G. Fox & Co. at the request of owner Beatrice Fox Auerbach, who wanted advice on hiring black employees.

Although the Shaws had not studied past high school, they stressed the importance of education to their children. Five went to college, and four became teachers.

Spencer Shaw regularly attended Saturday morning story hour at the library, where there was a rule that of the three books that could be taken out at one time, no more than two could be fiction. He excelled at Weaver High School, where he was the only black in his class. He graduated in 1934 and went to Hampton University, where he majored in secondary education and was president of the senior class. When he was graduated in 1940, he received one of six fellowships set aside for blacks by the Carnegie Corp. to study library science, and he attended the library school of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, graduating with highest honors.

A temporary job at Hartford Public Library's Keney branch during graduate school turned into a permanent position, and Shaw became the first black to run a branch library in the city. In an oral history segment preserved at the library, he said one assistant librarian tendered her resignation after learning of his hiring but reconsidered after working with him. At the Keney branch, he organized many programs story hours, visits to schools, evening music and opera sessions for adults and children, and individualized services for children who were homebound.

In 1943, Shaw joined the Army and served in a segregated unit at Fort Devens, Mass., doing menial work until a visiting high-ranking officer took the time to listen to some of the highly educated black servicemen. Soon after, five of them, including Shaw, were sent to officer training school, and he served as a second lieutenant for the rest of the war.

Shaw gravitated to children's literature and storytelling, and he continued a library tradition that began in the earlier part of the century, when librarians tried to encourage reading and to increase literacy by telling children folk tales and myths. He returned to the Keney branch for several years, studied at the University of Chicago Library School, then worked in libraries in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Nassau County from 1949 to 1970. There he honed his storytelling skills and explored the stories and legends of cultures around the world.

His reputation began to grow, and he was invited to give lectures and courses at many colleges and visited Norway, Sweden, the Soviet Union, England, France and South Africa. In 1970, he accepted an offer to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle after having been a visiting professor in its School of Information.

The American Ambassador invited him to visit Australia during the American Bicentennial year and narrate Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" at the Sydney Opera House. The U.S. government sent him to New Zealand to commemorate the signing of a treaty with the Maoris, and he was invited to visit Osaka, Japan, to mark the 50th anniversary of the rebuilding of its library.

In Seattle, Shaw taught classes in storytelling, the history of children's literature and, in a favorite area, how to develop programs for children with special needs and for culturally diverse audiences. He continued to travel and collected folk tales, legends and stories wherever he could. He was an active member of the American Library Association and served as president of the Association for Library Services to Children..

Shaw, who never married, kept in close touch with his family, who were among the first blacks to settle in Hartford. His apartment reflected his frequent travels, as well as his friendship with countless children's authors and illustrators, who gave him signed copies of their books.

When he retired from Washington as a full professor in 1986, the school honored him by naming a lecture series in after him, and he returned yearly to introduce the speaker. He received an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Wisconsin and had been scheduled to appear on a panel at the American Library Association's annual meeting shortly before his death from pneumonia.

He moved to Bloomfield in 2004, joined the board of the Connecticut Story Telling Center and told stories to the children at his church. Whether he was recounting a Grimm fairy tale or describing the antics of Anansi, the West African trickster, or the mythic Native American coyote, "he had them in the palm of his hand," said Elizabeth Gruber, a recent board member. "He had this huge voice, very powerful, very dramatic."

Despite his formal manner, Shaw could tame even restless and unruly children with his voice, a ceremonial candle and music. "The kids were just drawn to him, totally attentive," said Ann Shapiro, director of the center. "He didn't use a lot of voices and no masks, but there was something magical about him. It made you listen."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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