Once again, thank you so much for following along with our project this year! I wrote this entry with research assistance from Maria Harris (Interim Manager, Juanita E. Thornton / Shepherd Park Neighborhood Library), who made a trip to the DCPL clip file to uncover some history.
In 1985, residents of the Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, discovered that an apartment building had been razed and a Wendy’s franchise was scheduled to be built. DC zoning regulations had recently changed, making the transition particularly abrupt and surprising.
Shepherd Park is the northernmost neighborhood along Georgia Avenue on the way to Silver Spring, MD; residents had little desire for “another monster fast-food complex serving the Maryland commuters,” in the words of resident Lyn Blatch. Meanwhile, residents had walk a mile and a half, crossing four busy thoroughfares, to use the closest public library in Takoma Park.
Juanita Thornton had been unable to attend the first meeting between neighbors and the Wendy’s representatives, but a friend had called her that night to describe the mounting tension and outrage. Thornton, who had retired from teaching in DC public schools and had experience as an activist for senior citizens, thought all night about other options for the community.
At 6:00 the next morning, she started making phone calls. By 6:45, she was talking to Hardy Franklin, Director of the Department of DC Public Libraries. “We have beef, bread, booze and beer,” she recalled telling him. “We need another B—books.” She thought the other B “would provide good mental health. It is necessary for the growth of our cities, harmony among the races, justice and peace.”
Books Not Burgers would become their slogan. Community support was widespread. The students of Shepherd Elementary School wrote letters to the mayor and testified before the City Council’s library board. Neighbors signed petitions and lobbied their council member. And Thornton—whom the Washington Postreported was legally blind and unable to read—led the charge.
In 1988, ground was finally broken on the new library. The grand opening was held in July of 1990. Mrs. Thornton died only a month and a half later, on September 14, 1990. In 1992, the branch was renamed in her honor. Her portrait continues to watch over library patrons today; you can see it in the background of many photos from library events.