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An Extraordinary Law Librarian

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The following is a guest post by Debbie Shrager, a legal reference librarian who worked in the Law Library’s Public Services Division. In this post, Debbie writes about the extraordinary life of John F.N. Wilkinson, who worked in the Law Library of Congress from 1857-1912. Wilkinson’s service to the Law Library is certainly the most fascinating fact I have ever learned about the Law Library. I am delighted that Debbie has uncovered more information about Wilkinson’s life and career to share with our readers. Highlighting Wilkinson’s government service seems like the perfect way to conclude February, African-American History Month.

Black and white photograph of the Law Library at the Capitol
The Law Library at the Capitol. Source: Centennial of Law Library, 1832-1932; Washington, U. S. Govt. Printing Office, 1932.

A question submitted to the Library’s Ask a Librarian service prompted me to research a former Law Library of Congress staff member. His name was John F. N. Wilkinson. The patron asked for a photo of Wilkinson which I was unable to find. But while looking for the elusive photo, I quickly learned that Mr. Wilkinson had a fascinating history at the Library of Congress—and beyond—that I needed to investigate!

John Francis Nicholas Wilkinson was born in Washington D.C. in 1832. After spending several years working in a brickyard, he was hired by the Library of Congress in 1857 as a “laborer” employed to perform custodial duties. That same year, he was appointed as the law division’s second employee by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney. The law collection was then housed in the United States Capitol Building and by statute was under the control of the justices. Wilkinson moved steadily up the ranks from dusting the law books to become an assistant librarian. This progress might not be particularly notable except that he achieved this status in those early years despite his race: Wilkinson was African-American.

Wilkinson proved to be invaluable to the Law Library’s patrons. For over 15 years he was the only assistant to the first “Custodian of Law,” Charles Henry Wharton Meehan (term 1833-1872). The Law Library had no catalog, so legal researchers relied on Wilkinson to help them locate needed law books. When the size of the Law Library reached close to 80,000 volumes, George F. Curtis, the third Law Librarian (term 1886-1897) asked Congress for appropriations for The Preparation, Printing, and Distribution of a Subject and Authors’ Catalogue of the Books in the Law Library of Congress. In his request, he noted that Wilkinson’s “remarkable memory . . . for the multitudinous titles of the law books has in part made up for the lack of catalogues.”

Members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and prominent members of the bar were among Wilkinson’s many friends and supporters. According to a news account, early in his career Wilkinson was told that that library was no longer going to employ “colored help.” Senator Reverdy Johnson, a member of the Joint Committee on the Library, quickly intervened and requested that Wilkinson remain at the library. Sometime later, a group of the library’s prestigious patrons proposed that Wilkinson be promoted to chief of the law department. Picture of the title page of a report entitled "Hearings - Subcommittee of House Committee on Appropriations" John F. N. Wilkinson died on October 5, 1912. He had worked at the Law Library of Congress for 55 years and served under five different Librarians of Congress. Until his final year at the library, he was absent only one day due to illness. Wilkinson continues to hold the record as the longest serving employee in the history of Library of Congress! Herbert Putnam, the eighth Librarian of Congress, spoke at Wilkinson’s funeral. In his 1912 Annual Report to Congress, Putnam wrote the following about Wilkinson:

His first duties were minor—the dusting of the law books and physical care of the library room; but utilizing the opportunity to acquire a familiarity with the titles and location and even of the subjects represented, he was rapidly advanced until he reached the place and salary of a higher assistant, and held this post in the Law Library until his death. To an exact memory of the books, he added an exact memory of persons, and his prompt, simple, and respectful service made so favorable an impression upon Members of Congress, the bar, and the Justices of the Supreme Court . . . that he was at one time even urged for the Law Librarianship itself; a high tribute to the industry, the perseverance, and the concentration which he sought to make good the lack of academic education inevitable at that period for one of his race. . . . To these qualities, sustained by devotion and fidelity and a robust constitution . . . , he owed his long association with the Library, and his usefulness in it even at an age which necessarily precluded the acquisition of new methods or more varied duties. And to the last he  remained a figure of simple dignity, impressive not merely from age, but from other qualities as well. “The last” of his service, was in fact the last of his career, for he was at his post, and performing his duties even on the day of his death.

Newspaper article announcing J.F.N. Wilkinson's funeral
Evening Star, October 10, 1912, p.24

John F. N. Wilkinson served not only patrons of the Law Library, he was also active in his community. He was one of a small number of African-American members of the District of Columbia School Board of Trustees. He was also an officer in an African-American lodge of the Knights Templar. In 1877, Wilkinson publically joined with other Freemasons calling for a “National Masonic Convention” to end segregation in the organization’s grand lodges. On October 12, 1912, the Washington Bee, one of the most influential African-American newspapers, published a fond remembrance of Wilkinson:

In the death of John Francis Wilkinson this community loses a highly respected and honorable citizen. . . . Members of the bar in this city, and all parts of the country, who had occasion to consult the law books in the library of the Supreme Court, have testified time and again to the helpful assistance rendered them by Mr. Wilkinson. . . . Many years ago he took an active interest in all matters affecting the welfare of the race, and while not pushing himself prominently to the front, remained a positive force, to be relied upon by the fraternal organizations to which he belonged. . . . [He] belonged to that rare set of colored leaders in this city, who accomplished great things without notice and the blare of trumpets—things affecting the education needs of the race as well as their civil and political rights. . . .

Wilkinson was survived by his wife and four children. His oldest son and namesake was one of the founders of the American Tennis Association, the oldest African-American sports club in the United States.

This remembrance of John F. N. Wilkinson is being shared during African American History Month. This year’s theme, Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories, celebrates “the places where African Americans have made history.” Wilkinson, and his distinguished colleagues such as Daniel A. P. Murray, helped to make the Library of Congress one on the places where that history has been made.  



Comments (3)

  1. Thanks for bringing to light the life of this remarkable individual who played such a key role in the early years of the Law Library of Congress!

  2. Great post.

  3. Thank you for highlighting the life of one of many African Americans who helped build and sustain this nation’s greatest treasure. I do hope your blog will encourage someone to write an extensive biography of John F. Wilkinson and his family. I have fond memories of meeting Gladys Cannon Nunery (1904-1992), John F. Wilkinson’s grand daughter. She, too, was a legend; in 1925, served as national president of the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, the African American teachers’ sorority. Her mother was J.F.W.’s daughter, Elizabeth Genevieve Wilkinson Cannon, a teacher in Washington, D.C. Gladys Cannon Nunery’s biography is included in my work on African American women Writers in New Jersey, 1836-2000… (Rutgers University Press). Thank you again for reviving the memory Wilkinson and his phenomenal family.

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