Ronnie Wise retired recently from being Director of the Bolivar County Library in Mississippi. KTLA in Los Angeles featured a superb article about him. Here are some samples from the article.
People call him a librarian, and he surely looks like a librarian, with his sedentary frame, thick eyeglasses, fastidiously trimmed hair and goatee. But, deep down, he feels like something else, something more. He feels like the Sisyphus of Mississippi. He feels like a superhero in one of his beloved comic books, even though he fights the forces of darkness with little more than night classes and meager grants, and he loses more than he wins; 30 years of that would make even Spiderman cranky.
. . .
Some used to hop a train out, but the trains don’t stop here anymore. Some worked their way out, but jobs have gotten scarce. Few dreamed of escaping through books. Then Ronnie Wise came along.
How many have learned to read because of Wise? He lost count long ago. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He doesn’t care. As director of libraries for Bolivar County, one of America’s least literate places, where 41% of 40,000 residents can’t read, Wise keeps his mind on what needs doing, not what’s been done, which might be why he looks so cranky.
He began his library career as a bookmobile driver, and was deeply impressed by the need and desire for books he found on his route.
One day Wise pulled his bookmobile into Pace, a tiny town where the streets ran with raw sewage. He parked across from the abandoned bank. All at once a storm descended. Skies turned hellishly dark; fierce winds kicked up. A young teen, Jennie Washington, came running out. She should have stayed indoors, Wise says, but Jennie just had to have a book. Because Jennie had nothing else.
Whenever Jennie was about to read, she’d say: “I’m going into this book.” Wise recognized her as a kindred spirit, a fellow lover of escape. “The poorer a person is, the more they want escape,” he says. “I think it’s been that way from the beginning of time.”
As Jennie left the bookmobile, hugging her new romance novels, winds pried loose the facade of the bank. Bricks suddenly rained down on Jennie. She fell, curled around her books, killed instantly. “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wise says.
It was Jennie who first taught him that books can be a matter of life and death in the Delta.
He was soon appointed to be the Director of the Bolivar County Library.
His first move was to resurrect Bolivar County’s adult literacy program. Classes were held in the main library, in downtown Cleveland, the county seat. Overnight the library became so crowded with men and women learning to read that some tutoring sessions took place in broom closets. Desperate for more room, Wise asked the mayor to let him have the old train depot, which was sitting abandoned a few blocks away. The mayor agreed, and Wise set about converting the depot into the Cleveland Depot Library — a kind of literacy triage.
Besides being one of the happiest days of Wise’s life, the ribbon-cutting at the renovated Depot was a triumph for everyone in the Delta who cared about books. January, 1994. “Raining cats and dogs,” Wise says. “Dark as a dungeon outside. That didn’t stop the place from being full of people. All day long. They’d come in drenched, soaked to the gills, and we still had a great time.”
. . .
He didn’t stop with the Depot, however. Bolivar County hadn’t added a library branch in 30 years — Wise added four. He hired new librarians too. When he took over as director, every branch librarian was white. As he prepares to leave, all but one are African American. He installed computers with Internet access, the first public library in the Delta to do so, and offered free videos, an innovation that left people agog. He launched summer reading programs, handed out prenatal “literacy kits,” arranged for people to receive free reading glasses and eye exams.
He even persuaded Archie Comics to publish a special comic: Archie, Jughead and the gang visit the Cleveland Depot, where they meet Bertha, a composite of all the real adults learning to read there. Wise, a lifelong collector, knew how effective comic books could be in teaching adult nonreaders — especially if the comic book was about the nonreader.
Despite the local popularity of his actions, he faced huge obstacles.
But after all his preaching about the virtue of “lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness,” darkness was closing fast.
It grew pitch-dark the night someone set fire to Wise’s library in Shaw, south of Cleveland. “Numbness and horror,” Wise says. “Here’s this thing you’ve nurtured, and grown, and now it’s no longer there.” Months later, someone did it again. Then someone set fire to the library in Gunnison. Books that didn’t turn to ashes were ruined by smoke and water. An old man came by days later and loaded the ruined books into his pickup: He burned them for heat all winter.
Three library fires and still no one arrested. With a wry smile, Wise says a few charred libraries don’t seem to be high-priority in these parts. He takes a generally wry view of local law enforcement. “When my house was broken into,” he says, “the policeman who showed up wrote the police report on his hand.”
It’s no easier to bear when nature is the vandal. A tornado once damaged the busiest branch in Wise’s system: the local prison, where 4,000 books, and a sporadic book club organized by Wise, keep the men from going mad. “A mind can be a terrible thing,” says Oscar Lindsey, the prison librarian, “and a book can keep you from twirling around inside it.”
The historical, geographic, and institutional barriers to literacy and library service continue. Bolivar County has much reason for pride as well as reasons for despair. The legacies of slavery continue to this day.
One-third white, two-thirds black, Bolivar County has a long history of ignorance and hate, made doubly tragic by its parallel history of genius and hope. This is where freed slaves — including Isaiah Montgomery, son of a favored slave of Jefferson Davis’ family, who was granted access to the Davis plantation library — founded a landmark community just for blacks. This is where Freedom Riders came in droves during the civil rights era, registering voters and laying the groundwork for all kinds of change, including Freedom Schools, makeshift classrooms where African Americans could finally learn.
This is where the blues was born, and raised. Bolivar County is to blues what Philadelphia is to democracy. The founding fathers — W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton — drank and caroused all over this county, and not 10 minutes from the Depot sits a hallowed farm, Dockery Plantation, where musicians from throughout the South came to blend moans and chants and spirituals, all the disparate sounds of an enslaved culture, into one hauntingly American plaint.
Then they all hopped a fast train out.
Launching a literacy crusade from a train depot was an act rich in meaning and irony, one that spoke to the historical contradictions of the Delta. A train whistle is evocative everywhere, but in the Delta that high lonesome note goes straight to the heart, because the Delta wasn’t livable, or leave-able, until the first tracks were laid down.
. . .
The source of illiteracy is slavery, he says, plain and simple: Before the Civil War, Bolivar County had more slaveholding plantations than any county in the South. Slavery begat illiteracy, he argues, illiteracy perpetuates economic slavery, and the cycle simply remains unbroken.