The last time residents of east Compton got a new library, Dwight Eisenhower was President. The Dodgers still played in Brooklyn. Thursday, LA County broke ground on a new branch. It brings back memories for KPCC's Washington correspondent Kitty Felde.
This was my library, back when it used to be called the East Compton Branch Library. Now it’s called the East Rancho Dominguez branch. The names are practically bigger than the building, which is just 5,000 square feet.
Libraries were so important to my family, my folks moved us to a house just down the street so we could walk here. I’d check out 10 books at a time, the maximum allowed. When I was 15, I got a job here, shelving books. Books! The old branch has more than a dozen computers. The new one being built around the corner will have nearly twice that number.
Back when I worked at the library, my boss was Mrs. Hughes, a young African-American woman from Atlanta. Back then, female black bosses were rare, even in a city like Compton where blacks had just become the new majority. On April 8, 1974, we both were working the late shift. It was a very important night for African- Americans, for Atlanta, and for baseball fans.
Atlanta Braves slugger Henry Aaron had shrugged off hate mail, racist comments, and even death threats in his quest to break Babe Ruth's sacred home run record. Four days earlier, he'd tied Ruth at 714. That night, Atlanta played the L.A. Dodgers.
Mrs. Hughes brought the tiny black and white TV set from the back room and set it up on the front desk. The library was empty, just the two of us watching in the bottom of the 4th when Aaron stepped to the plate to face the Dodger pitcher, "Gentleman" Al Downing.
Mrs. Hughes was a tough boss who smoked elegant cigarettes on her breaks. She was very proper, very formal, and did her best to show me how to act like an adult on the job. Not that it worked. And certainly not on that night.
When that ball flew over the fence, both of us threw our arms into the air, dancing behind the counter, shouting in our not-so-proper library voices, an African-American woman from Atlanta, and a white kid from Compton, celebrating not just the home run that broke a record, but a moment in American history we shared in that tiny library.
Hank Aaron retired with 755 home runs. He lost the title to Barry Bonds in 2007. Mrs. Hughes has been gone for years. And in just 18 months, this branch of the LA County library will close its doors. But for me, that one night in this special place lives on.