SAVANNAH, Ga. – When an anonymous donor offered $150,000 to re-open Savannah's Carnegie Library on condition that part of it be named in honor of city native and former library user Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, it was an offer library officials could not refuse.
But liberal activists in Savannah, one of Georgia's poorest cities, quickly cried foul, claiming the conservative justice's name had no business on a library serving a predominantly black community.
Most of the dissent stems from Thomas' opposition to affirmative action. "Building that library was affirmative action when we had none," said Rev. Leonard Smalls, one of Thomas' most vocal opponents.
Smalls was referring back to 1914, when a Carnegie Foundation grant created the small library to serve Savannah's black residents who, at the time, were not permitted in the city's main library branch. The library continued to serve a predominantly black community until 1997, when storm damage forced it to close.
Library board members felt re-opening the building was worth the controversy.
"We will never, take my word for it, pass up an opportunity for someone to give us some funding," said library board member Jean McCorkle. "It's too hard to get out and to earn the funds."
Some even argued that naming a wing for Thomas — a former library patron who made it to the nation's highest court — would inspire users and visitors.
"I would walk into that place and in the Carnegie Library I would see the pictures of Booker T. (Washington) and pictures of Frederick Douglass and I would read," Thomas told lawyers at a Savannah Bar Association luncheon back in May. "Did I dream that I would be on the Supreme Court? No. But I dreamt that there was a world out there that was worth pursuing."
Local radio talk show host Van Johnson said disagreements with Justice Thomas' legal opinions shouldn't stand in the way of reopening the Carnegie Library.
"The individuals of this community that have that much of a problem about it, they need to either put up the money or shut up," Johnson said.