In the spring of 1976, Stephen King’s The Shining was about to hit bookshelves, and readers had just recently fallen in love with the whimsical tale, The Princess Bride. That same year, Doris Young came across a wanted ad in the Birmingham classifieds for a library page at the Emmet O’Neal Public Library. She interviewed and got the job, becoming the first African-American to work in a non-janitorial, professional capacity at the library. More than four decades later, Doris is still at the library. Like a classic novel, she’s become a beloved member of the Mountain Brook community, helping generations of readers fall in love with the written word. We sat down with Doris and asked her to share her most important story — her own.
When did you start working at the library?
April 1, 1976. I was looking for work, and I used to go down to the employment office, which was downtown at the time on 18th Street. I would go down there and look on their microfiche machine, and that’s how I found it — old-school style!
Tell us about the various roles you’ve held at the library.
My first position here, I started as a page in ’76. Then, I was promoted to clerk and then circulation manager, and now I’m head of the circulation department.
How have you seen the library change over the years?
Well, we’ve changed from using catalogues to now everything is basically on computers. We’ve gone from microfiche and typing up notices to emails or, for some people who don’t want emails, they’ll still get telephone calls. We have auto-renewals now, which means if your books are late and we don’t have holds on them, the system will automatically renew it.
What was it like, being the first African-American person to work at the library?
At the time, it could be a problem. Because I was young — I was 26 years old — and a lot of the people were not used to African-Americans at the library. Mountain Brook is one of the whitest cities in the country. There are rarely any black people here — even today. But when I first started working here, I would hear a lot of negative things about black people as a whole. At first, it really affected me, and I just had to make myself say, “OK, you’re not going to run me away.” I just decided that I was going to stick it out. Whenever I would get upset, I would go on a walk in the village. I was used to it, though. I grew up in Wilcox County, down in that area where you were considered — even though slavery was over — it was still like you were not considered a real person.
How did you stay strong through those moments when you felt like you were being treated differently because of the color of your skin?
I have faith. I’ve just grown in my faith. I know who I am, and I know I’m just as important as the next person. I just don’t let it bother me anymore, really. I prayed over it a lot during my younger years when I worked here, and I just don’t let it bother me anymore. It bothered me at first, but like I said, I had to realize that it is what it is. You can’t make others change. Some people will always think that black people are less than they are. So, you just have to believe you’re worthy, and even though someone is treating you poorly, you don’t have to stoop to their level.
Describe your perfect weekend. Where would you go, and what would you do?
My perfect weekend would probably be seeing my grandchildren. I have two sets. One comes from Georgia and another from Birmingham, and they enjoy each other so much. So I enjoy just seeing how much they enjoy each other. They’re from age 16 down to 8 years old. And the boys are more fun than the girls — I have to admit it! The girls, I guess they’re just teenagers.
Who is your biggest role model?
I would have to say my mother or my grandmother. I grew up with both. Even though they were really strict, I realize now that the things that they did were really for my sake. At the time, I didn’t understand it — and sometimes I didn’t like it — but I think growing up, even though I grew up in Wilcox County, in rural Alabama, where things could be awful at times, I learned a lot from them. And I will always be thankful for them — my mother and my grandmother. My mother’s Rebecca, and my grandmother’s name was Elizabeth.
What’s your favorite meal?
It would probably be collard greens — and I like fish and shrimp, but not with the greens. So, we’ll go with collard greens, chicken, dressing, potato salad and some type of dessert. Pie or ice cream. I enjoy cooking. I usually cook for the family during the holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas. Usually, I’ll fix turkey, dressing, pies, cakes — German chocolate or pound cake, potato pies, coconut pies. And they also love collard greens and green peas — simple things.
RELATED: Recipe: Salted Caramel Chocolate Pie
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Shoot, I’m an open book! There’s not a whole lot people don’t know about me, because I talk all the time! Everyone knows I quilt. Everyone knows I cook. Everyone knows I fish. Maybe, I would say that I enjoy being by myself a lot of times. Even though I enjoy being with other people, I enjoy late at night when everyone goes to bed, I enjoy staying up and having that time to myself. Usually, I’ll watch old movies like Bonanza. I’ll do that, or I’ll play games on my computer or something like that. And also, I think most people know this, but I love talking on the phone with my cousin, who lives in the country. Her name is Annie Grace. We’ll talk late at night. We grew up together. We barely go a day without talking to each other. We grew up like sisters.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Believe in the Lord, and believe in yourself. And always keep your head up. Don’t let anyone have control over you.
What are three things you can’t live without?
I like sweets. And I like to get my hair done. And then for the third thing, I would say my transportation. I really enjoy the fact that I have my own car, and I can get up and leave when I need to, when I want to.
To learn more about Doris’ work, as well as the events and programs, at the Emmet O’Neal Library in Mountain Brook, visit eolib.org.
And thanks to Eric & Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the fabulous photos.
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