American literature pioneer Ralph Ellison was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and this library is a celebration of his legacy.
Opened in 1975, the
Ralph Ellison Library branch of the Metropolitan Library System
serves one of Oklahoma City’s historically black neighborhoods. In
addition to its extensive collections, the library serves as a
community center providing tax and voting information and assistance,
tutoring, creative writing classes, and youth mentorship activities.
The Ralph Ellison Library sponsors a summer reading program, regular Jazz
concerts, Black History Month events, and an annual Juneteenth
celebration. Library tours and familiarization sessions are available
Ralph Waldo Ellison,
born March 1, 2014, was raised in a working-class
black neighborhood in Oklahoma City. His parents had migrated to this
close-knit black community from Georgia and South Carolina. Lewis
Ellison, Ralph’s father, was a construction foreman who eventually
came to own a small ice and coal delivery business. When
Ellison was three, Lewis was killed in a workplace accident. This left his young widow, Ida Millsap Ellison, to raise Ralph and his brother
Herbert on her own. To support her family, Ida worked as a nursemaid,
janitor, and domestic, but her avocation was social justice. Ida
campaigned tirelessly for political issues, canvassing for Eugene V.
Debs and other socialist candidates during elections. In the early
1930’s, Ida was repeatedly jailed for violating Oklahoma City’s
racial segregation-based zoning ordinances.
Although the Ellison
family had been among the poorest members of their community, Ralph
Ellison had managed to attend a good school and find good
mentors—both black and white--from among the City’s most cultured
and influential people. Ellison was drawn to music and literature.
T.S. Elliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland, sparked Ellison’s
literary ambitions and his desire to fuse African-American folklore,
language, music, and political realities with more conventional
Euro-American literary forms and themes. His mastery of classical
coronet was such that he was awarded a position in the music program
of the legendary Tuskegee Institute under William L. Dawson.
notwithstanding, Ellison always admitted that jazz music was a major love, along with the
emerging audio technology enabling the masses to experience it via
radio broadcast and recordings: “The great
emphasis in my school was upon classical music, but such great jazz
musicians as Hot Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing, and Lester Young were
living in Oklahoma City....As it turned out, the perfection, the
artistic dedication which helped me as a writer, was not so much in
the classical emphasis as in the jazz itself.”
Lacking funds to
complete his education, Ellison migrated to New York City in 1936 to
earn the money he needed to finish his studies. His first job was in
the YMCA, where he also began to study sculpture. In June 1937 he met
his friend and mentor Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison’s
literary ambitions. Through Wright, Ellison became friends with
poet Langston Hughes and the painter Romare Bearden. In between supporting
himself with various jobs, Ellison became a literary critic,
musician, and sculptor, and finally, author.
justice, art, and music converged to forge a unique artistic
sensibility in Ellison. It was in late 1937 after the death of his
mother that Ellison began to take his writing seriously. Ellison
became a contributor to the New York Federal Writers Project of the
WPA, and began submitting reviews, essays, and short fiction to New
Masses, Tomorrow, The Negro Quarterly, The New Republic, The Saturday
Review, Antioch Review, The Reporter, and other periodicals. The Invisible Man, Ellison’s masterpiece about the disenfranchisement and
disillusionment inherent in the African American experience, took seven years to write. Ellison structured his
novel according to the conventions of jazz composition, with several
“solo riffs” mimicking the performance of jazz improvisation. The
Invisible Man was on the bestseller list for 16 weeks and won the
National Book Award in 1953. Although he was a prolific literary and culture critic, Ellison did not publish more fiction during his lifetime; his masterful works Juneteenth, Flying Home & Other Stories, and Three Days after the Shooting were published after his death.