Jun 30

Willie Lee Buffington and the Faith Cabin Libraries

The following post was written by MIRC Assistant Director and Curator for Regional Film Collections, Lydia Pappas.

In November 2015, preservation copying of the Willie Lee Buffington Collection films was completed by Colorlab, with thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation Basic Preservation grant. This collection consists of six reels, or approximately 1,864 feet of 16mm Kodachrome film, of Willie Lee Buffington’s personal amateur film footage and prominently features segregated African-American schools and Faith Cabin Libraries in rural Georgia and South Carolina.

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Still image from one of Willie Lee Buffington’s home movies.

The Buffington Collection came to MIRC from the South Caroliniana Manuscripts division where the papers of Mr. Buffington are stored after being donated by his family. The manuscripts collection consists of correspondence, reports, records of library operations, transcripts of radio work, and other promotional materials about his work to establish Faith Cabin Libraries in South Carolina and Georgia, and includes a master list of Faith Cabin Libraries locations in South Carolina.

Willie Lee Buffington, 1908-1988, was a white mill worker and Methodist minister from Saluda, South Carolina, and was best known as the founder of the Faith Cabin Library (FCL) movement, created to support literacy to underserved African-American youth by building libraries of free books for poor, segregated schools in rural communities. The first Faith Cabin Library was established in Buffington’s hometown of Saluda, South Carolina in 1932, and were so named in that they were “built on faith, and housed in cabins.”

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Still image from one of Willie Lee Buffington’s home movies.

The six reels of home movies in the Buffington Collection capture a unique glimpse into the life and customs of rural Southern Americans, particularly the youth that lived in predominantly Black communities. The footage was filmed in the early 1950s in the South, where schools remained segregated until the late 1960s and where African Americans were not allowed to use general public libraries. These communities had very few alternatives for sources of educational reading material, and the Faith Cabin Libraries filled an essential need in American education for these underserved communities. When these films were created it was estimated that there were more than 100 Faith Cabin Libraries in existence throughout Georgia and South Carolina. The library system remained active until the mid-1970s, but sadly at this present time very few of these buildings are still standing. A historic marker for a Faith Cabin Library in Anderson, South Carolina claims that only two remain in the state.

Willie Lee Buffington’s story is not just a story of philanthropy but of kindness and determination. As a small child Willie Lee Buffington was encouraged to read and enjoy books by a Black school teacher, Euriah Simpkins, who encouraged Buffington to go to college. In 1931, while working as a mill worker in Edgefield, Buffington attended the dedication of Simpkins’ new school in Saluda. It had been built with money from a Northern philanthropist and Buffington was shocked to find that the school had no books. “It was unthinkable that a school should not have a few books,” he later wrote. Returning home, he had an inspiration. He picked the names of five ministers out of a Sunday School publication and wrote them letters asking for a donation of books. Two months later, he received a letter from the Rev. L. H. King of St. Mark’s Methodist Church in Harlem, New York, followed by a donation of 1,000 books that Rev. King’s congregation had gathered.

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Still image from one of Willie Lee Buffington’s home movies.

In a matter of months, using volunteer labor and materials donated by local community members, a library was built near Saluda. It was 18 feet by 22 feet and had a rock chimney. People used barrels for chairs and read by the light of kerosene lamps, as the closest electric power was five miles away. It was named the “Faith Cabin Library” because when they began, they had nothing to go on but faith.

A small amount of faith can go a long way, and after a small magazine wrote a story about the Faith Cabins, readers sent enough books to start another library in Ridge Spring, about 10 miles south of Saluda. Over the next 20 years, religious magazines and even mainstream publications such as Reader’s Digest wrote about the Faith Cabin Libraries. The publicity helped and each time an article appeared, people sent Buffington more books and support from across the American states, including from as far afield as Dartmouth College students in New Hampshire, and a Kiwanis Club in California.

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Still image from one of Willie Lee Buffington’s home movies.

At a time when African Americans fought for education, when laws kept them out of libraries, and the Ku Klux Klan was powerful, it took courage to do what Buffington and all those who helped him did. Ethel Brown, 70, of Saluda, Buffington’s daughter, is still amazed at what her father, a book-lover who used to go to sleep reading a book, managed to do. “You think of philanthropists doing something like this. But my dad grew up in a poor rural family. If he’d had lots of money, you’d expect this. But all he had was a dream,” said Brown. “He really didn’t have a whole lot more than the people he was trying to help.”

These films show communities working together to improve the lives of others during a difficult time in American history, and provide rare moving images associated with the education and library services for African Americans in the South. These films are an asset to social historians and civil rights researchers interested in these topics and are now available to be viewed by the general public through MIRC’s Digital Video Repository.

~Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

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