Donor Spotlight: At Home in the Grand Reading Room

Naming Opportunities
The Jacksonville Public Library Foundation provides naming opportunities at the library and strives to match philanthropic donors with projects representative of their values. To find out more about naming opportunities at Jacksonville Public Library, please contact the Jacksonville Public Library Foundation.

From the grandiose ceiling and clerestory window opening to the sky, to the modern art accenting the walls, to the well-appointed wood and brass furnishings, the Grand Reading Room on the fourth floor of the Main Library is stately, inviting and welcoming. By any standard, it would be an impressive place to display one’s name.

But that’s not the reason Marsha Dean Phelts, a renaissance woman whose name graces the entrance of the Grand Reading Room, chose to make a generous donation to the Jacksonville Public Library Foundation, or have her mother’s name forever etched on the Grand Reading Room Ask Here Desk. For Phelts, it’s much more personal.

“The library is my life,” she said. “Giving back to a library that has given me the quality of my life is easy. It’s putting your money where your mouth is.”

Phelts wanted not only to honor her mother who inspired her love of reading, but also return a heartfelt thanks to the library, an institution she sees as the great equalizer, the “cement and glue” of great civilizations, as she puts it. Phelts believes libraries make “the wealth of the universe” available to anyone who wants it.

From everything she remembers from her childhood, Phelts’ earliest and fondest indelible memories are of visits to the library with her mother, Eva Rosier Lamar. Her mother instilled in her a love of reading from an early age as they frequented their neighborhood library, Wilder Park Library, the first branch of the Jacksonville Public Library, now the Dallas Graham Branch Library.

“My love of the library began before first grade,” Phelts said. “My love of reading was inspired by my mother.” An Edward Waters College graduate and Duval County educator who retired from Lake Lucina Elementary School, her mother enjoyed reading until her death at age 97.

Phelts absorbed books throughout her school life. When she changed elementary schools in first grade, she was thrilled to discover her new school, known today as Susie E. Tolbert Elementary, had an auditorium, cafeteria and best of all—a library. At Boylan-Haven, a private girls’ school, she looked forward to seeing her name in printed reports among those who read the most books. She graduated from Stanton High School, where she was “so happy” helping out in the school library.

Setting her sights on becoming a librarian, Phelts attended Edward Waters College and graduated from Florida A&M with a bachelor’s degree and a major in Library Science. She spent her 30-year career serving as a librarian in in Duval County public schools, colleges, and in Jacksonville Public Library’s Genealogy Department for 10 years.

Nurtured from childhood, Phelts’ love and appreciation for the library only grew stronger as she worked in her field. The library would take on a more important role in her life as she became a homeowner in American Beach and—to even her own surprise—an author.

Phelts’ quest to find and chronicle the history of American Beach—Florida’s first African-American beach—a place she’s called home for the past 30 years, would take years of patience, persistence, and elbow grease spent searching through deeds, maps and plats, surveys, articles, photos, memoirs and marriage records in courthouses and Jacksonville Public Libraries.

It’s easy to spot Marsha Dean Phelts’ house in American Beach—just look for the blue bottle tree.

Phelts and friends made frequent trips to American Beach, which she described as “party central, one grand time, Bourbon Street.” But after purchasing a home in American Beach in 1988, for which she is extremely grateful to share with her husband, the area became more meaningful to her. She demanded to know how her own “Paradise Park” came to be, but nobody could provide her with answers.

Digging up one clue after the other, she was able to piece together the entire history of American Beach—something that had never been done. It was a challenge since none of the information had been mainstreamed nor could be found in the library’s vertical files. But Phelts had a theory that anyone as significant as A. L. Lewis, president of Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first African-American millionaire, would have been affiliated with American Beach.

Searching through marriage records in the Florida Collections at the Haydon Burns Library, Phelts discovered that A. L. Lewis, developer of American Beach, had changed the spelling of his name. Admitting she went a little crazy over this “major find,” Phelts said, “I hit the jackpot. I found out he was married to Mary Frances Sammis in 1884. When I found that out, bells were ringing. I wanted to grab and hug the librarian!”

It was just the beginning. Her all-consuming effort resulted in An American Beach for African Americans, the first complete account of American Beach to date, published in 1997. Later she would pen The American Beach Cookbook, about good times and good friends, served up with an extra helping of good recipes.

Phelts’ goal this year is to finish a historical book about Sugar Hill, a section of Jacksonville inhabited by prominent and affluent black families that was founded in 1914. By 1964, during desegregation, Sugar Hill was destroyed to make way for highway construction and a medical center expansion. The process for Phelts is painstaking as all of the majestic homes are torn down. She is interviewing people to record their stories, collecting images and memorabilia from personal collections, and researching in Special Collections at the Main Library.

Spending more time in Special Collections is fine with Phelts. It’s another reason she wanted her name on the fourth floor. “I wanted to be on the fourth floor because that’s where I go. It’s where I find everything I need. This is home to me, in Florida and Genealogy,” Phelps said.

Her fondness for Jacksonville Public Library staff is also apparent. “I can’t go anywhere but here. I get the service I need. It’s beyond my expectations,” said Phelps. “This is your house, for all people who enter, this is your house. I love it. I love it!”

 

UPDATE: Visit our Flickr page for photos of the reception held in Ms. Phelps honor!

 

 

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