The library's history begins at the Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library of Atlanta in 1921. The current location on Auburn Avenue would come decades later. However, the library was initially a collection founded with the goal of opening public library access up to African Americans in Atlanta. The mission was very successful, and the collection expanded. In 1934 the branch officially organized the Negro History Collection under the leadership of Annie L. McPheeters, an African American librarian. The collection included books, journals, magazines, and newspapers written by and for African Americans.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's African American population was expanding. With growing call for an African American library in West Atlanta, the West Hunter Branch Library was founded on the corner of West Hunter Street and Morris Brown Drive in 1949. The library finally desegregated a decade later in 1959. In 1970 the Negro History collection was moved to its third home at the Carnegie Library building in downtown Atlanta. It was during this stay that the collection was renamed the Samuel W. Williams Collection on Black America, after a famous African American scholar based in Atlanta. In 1994 the collection came to its final home on Auburn Avenue. The collection eventually outgrew this four-story building, and renovations are currently underway to expand the Auburn Avenue Research Library.
Today, the library offers both a glimpse into the past for African Americans and cultural ties to Africa through visual arts, film, and writing. The library hosts speakers, exhibitions, and film screenings to connect Atlanta's residents to the African American experience.