Flint, MI— The Flint Public Library has officially changed its name in honor of former executive director, Gloria Coles.

At the library’s renaming celebration on Saturday, June 3, 2023, Coles said it had taken her some time to warm up to the idea, telling Flint Beat that she sees the building as the “people’s library” but recognizes the calls to rename it represent something greater than herself. 

“This is a glorious, surprising day, and I can’t say anything except this is an extraordinary honor, one that I never dreamed of, never even thought about,” Coles said during the ceremony.

Freelon Threlkeld was at Saturday’s event and had advocated for the library’s renaming as part of a grassroots group known as the Gloria Coles Initiative.

He said he’s watched the library’s transformation from its construction in the 1950s to the remodeling of the building decades later. And now, he said, he’s glad to witness its renaming to the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library.

The library wouldn’t be where it is today without her, Threlkeld explained, as Coles served as FPL’s director from 1984 to 2004 and was the first African American to hold the position. 

“She was laying the foundation for the future,” he said. “Now this is a beautiful place. Even in my era in the 50s and early 60s, it was a place of reference for books. Compared to Flint yesteryears, now it’s got the latest technology.” 

Renaming the library is also way to extend Coles’ legacy, Threlkeld added, citing how future visitors may now come in to ask about who she is and who she was to the library’s development.

Gloria Coles speaks during a meet and greet with her on June 3, 2023 at the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library (FPL) in Flint, Mich. following FPL’s renaming ceremony. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

The initiative’s members and library officials noted that Coles’ work over her 20 years at FPL helped the library navigate transitions, garner community support and raise funds that continue to benefit Flint residents and visitors. 

Janet O’Keefe began working at FPL in 2000, and she said Coles was an inspiring leader who played a key role in guiding the library to becoming an independent entity. 

“I honestly don’t believe we would be an independent library right now if it weren’t for Gloria Coles,” said O’Keefe, now lead librarian. “She shepherded us through the process of separating from the school district … and also through a period where we were being pressured to merge with the Genesee district libraries.” 

As O’Keefe alluded, the library was formerly a department of the Flint school district for over a century before a 1994 proposal prohibited Michigan school districts from raising millages for public libraries, according to Kay Schwartz, FPL’s current director.

That led to a “funding crisis,” Schwartz told Flint Beat in a prior interview. Then, in 1998, Flint Schools and the city of Flint formed FPL as a district library with its own governing board, and Coles helped secure the library’s first two millages in 2000 and 2003.

Coles said that during her time as director she had been focused on creating an inclusive library and fostering Flint residents’ trust. 

“We worked to create a welcoming and respectful space, a supportive environment for everybody in our community, and we celebrated everybody,” Coles said. “We did this by using every inch of space in our buildings and every penny of the millage money to build community trust.” 

Under her leadership, the library built a two-story addition to its building in 1990. It was the first significant construction project since the library was built in 1958 and until it underwent a renovation in 2020, according to an FPL press release.

An image of the construction of a two-story addition to the Flint Public Library’ building on display at the newly renamed Gloria Coles Flint Public Library in Flint, Mich. on June 2, 2023. The addition’s construction began in 1989. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)
An image of the construction of the Flint Public Library in 1957 at its location in the Flint Cultural Center campus, on display at the newly renamed Gloria Coles Flint Public Library on June 2, 2023 in Flint, Mich. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

During the library’s remodel, an anonymous donor dedicated a meeting room in Coles’ name. But E Hill De Loney, who is part of the Gloria Coles Initiative, said the former director was worthy of more recognition, and that’s why she called on FPL’s Board of Trustees to consider adding Coles to the library’s name. 

Coles created new literacy and educational opportunities for all community members including African Americans, De Loney explained. 

“She knew the people who needed the help the most and needed education,” she said.

According to the book “Flint Notables: 25 Remarkable Women Vol. 1,” published by FPL, Coles also encouraged staff to launch new programs for adults and children. Those included a yearly storytelling festival, music concerts and an annual quilt exhibit in partnership with the African American Quilters Guild of Flint. 

In all, helping her staff achieve their vision for the library was among her proudest achievements during her tenure, Coles explained. 

She said she also takes pride in setting the foundation for FPL’s leadership following her departure, commending Schwartz for leading the library’s recent renovation.

“It feels right. I might not have imagined so fantastic a facility. That’s Kay’s vision,” Coles said.

Inside the renovated Flint Public Library in Flint, Mich. on May 18, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

May 2023 marked the one year anniversary of the library’s re-opening after its remodel, and Coles said it’s a space that the Flint community deserves.

“The people of the city of Flint should be very proud of themselves,“ she said. “This is what we wanted. This is what we’re worth.”

The library, she added, serves as a pillar of renewal for Flint and the future of the city’s residents.

“It represents the best of who they are and who they can be and who their children can be,” Coles said. “That’s what I think it represents. It’s hope for the future.”

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...

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