Miriam Matthews was the first African American librarian in the Los Angeles Public Library system. Hired in 1927, she served in the library until her retirement in 1960 where she was instrumental in preserving the history and cultural heritage of black Angelenos.
Miriam Matthews was born on August 6, 1905 in Pensacola Florida to Reuben and Fannie Matthews. Two years later the Matthews family moved to Los Angeles. Miriam Matthews earning her B.A. degree and librarianship certificate from the University of California, Berkeley in 1926 and 1927, respectively, and her Master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1945.
In 1927, Matthews was appointed to the Los Angeles Public Library system, the first black professional librarian to be hired by the city. She served as a branch librarian until 1949, when she became a regional librarian and served on numerous administrative committees. In addition to her professional work, Matthews was heavily involved in progressive and community-oriented civic life in Los Angeles, active in various civil rights, youth relations, education, history, and art organizations. From 1946 to 1948, she served as chair of the Committee for Intellectual Freedom for the California Library Association.
Matthews, often called the “dean of Los Angeles black history,” also used her professional skills and her position in the community to draw attention to the contribution of African Americans and other people of color to California history. As early as 1940 she was gathering primary source material and publishing articles on early black history in California. Matthews was instrumental in initiating what was then called “Negro History Week” in Los Angeles in the 1950s. During Los Angeles’ Bicentennial celebration in 1981, Matthews successfully proposed and fought for the erection of a memorial honoring the multiethnic founders of the city.
Because of her work, Matthews received numerous awards from the California Historical Society, the Los Angeles City Council, and media organizations, in addition to a 1984 United States House of Representatives Award. Perhaps her most lasting contribution, though, was her research into African-American history in California. Over her lifetime, Matthews created an archive of books, documents, photographs, and art documenting African-American life in California from 1781 to the present. Many items for her collection were donated to museums or African American library archives. The Miriam Matthews collections of photographs and documents at both the Los Angeles Public Library and the African American Museum and Library in Oakland reflect her lifelong work and achievement.
Miriam Matthews died in Mercer Island, Washington on June 23, 2003, at the age of 97.