For Black History Month, the AFRO presents a series of articles highlighting important local heroes from the community. This week we sit with two sisters who shared their love of reading with community children.
“I was so country,” MaryLouise James Isbell said about her arrival to Washington D.C. from Kingstree, South Carolina almost 50 years ago. She said a helpful cab driver advised her to not open her motel door for anyone. It was New Year’s night, 1969.
Isbell started as a children’s librarian at a storefront in Suitland, Maryland. She later transferred to the Oxon Hill Branch of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. By August, her younger sister Lillie James – the sixth of 12 children – joined MaryLouise and the pair shared a Fairfax Village apartment in Southeast D.C.
Born and reared in a close-knit family of 14 where education, family, and Christian-values ruled, the Rev. Dozier and Mrs. Rosa Lee James’ children were the first in and last to leave Jordan Chapel Free Will Baptist Church. Isbell and James also sang in the church choir.
Unable to use the public library in the segregated South, Isbell admired her mother’s expressive reading style and longed to emulate it; she also enjoyed memorizing and reciting poems with her father. James’ love for reading grew from watching her parents read the Bible and newspapers, and listening to siblings pour over school texts. Her favorite children’s books were “Millions of Cats” and “Aesop’s Fables.”
Hard work characterized their days, whether at school, in the fields their family sharecropped, or on the acreage their mother inherited from her father. “Pretty much everything we ate we grew,” Isbell said, from vegetables, wheat, and sugar cane to hogs and chickens grown from mother’s mail-order baby chicks. “On Sunday, it was nothing to go pick a chicken and wring its neck for dinner.” Everyone looked forward to the Christmas hog barbeque.
Both Isbell and James graduated from Thomlinson High School, earned bachelor’s degrees from South Carolina State College (now university), and master’s degrees in library science from North Carolina Central University. They taught in South Carolina schools before leaving for D.C. in 1969.
James became Overlook Elementary’s librarian, calling the library she established “her baby.”
When Isbell noticed her little sister earned a higher salary, she promptly applied to the same school system, skirting an interview question about her relation to Miss Lillie James.
Isbell refused acceptance of her meager book supply at Concord Elementary in District Heights, Maryland, her first school. She met and married Phillip Leon Isbell (deceased), who became a deputy sheriff in Alexandria, Virginia. Isbell and other Black county teachers were reassigned to Whitehall Elementary in Bowie before Black students were bussed there in 1973.
Isbell remembers the staff treated her well, but the children were not happy, forced to leave friends and their neighborhoods for Whitehall. White teachers, unsure of how to encourage their new students, sent them to the librarian. Isbell started a library club, a nurturing step that characterized her school career. She retired from the Prince George’s County School System in 2003, as did James.
During the 1980s, James and Isbell worked on Sundays at the Oxon Hill Branch Library, a step which led to their involvement in the Friends of the Library, a group formed in 1993. James is an original member.
According to a library system’s website, “Friends of the Library groups support the Prince George’s County public libraries in many ways, including promoting the library in the community, stimulating public support for the library system and participating in and sponsoring library programs and special events.”
James said the group funds an SAT prep course; the Summer Quest Reading Program for primary and secondary school students; supports a variety of artistic, cultural, and kid-friendly programs; and runs a book store, book sales, and fundraising efforts. James, the group’s treasurer, said all funds raised go towards library programs. Isbell is the vice-president.
James and Isbell are on an ad hoc committee planning the 50th anniversary of the Oxon Hill Branch in 2017.