Flint, MI—A grassroots effort to rename the Flint Public Library (FPL) after its former director, Gloria Coles, is one step closer to happening. 

An intricate process, the library’s name change to the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library involves several rounds of approvals. The first was the library’s Board of Trustees vote in September 2022, and more recently, the Flint Community Schools (FCS) Board of Education gave its blessing at a Feb. 8, 2023 meeting. 

Sitting among the audience that evening was DeWaun Robinson, a teacher at the Flint Cultural Center Academy. Robinson is part of the Gloria Coles Initiative, a group of community members who first got together to advocate for FPL’s name change in 2021, during the library building’s now-complete renovation.

“We want to make sure that her story was told,” Robinson said. “And that generations beyond will be able to learn about Ms. Gloria Coles.”

Coles served as FPL’s director from 1984 to 2004. She was the first African American woman to take helm of the library, and her skills in navigating transitions and raising funds continue to benefit Flint residents and visitors according to Kay Schwartz, the library’s current director.

“Her work during her twenty year career at FPL inspired the strong community support that led directly to the beautiful new library building Flint has today,” said Schwartz, who began working at FPL in 1998.

A portrait of Gloria Coles, the former director of the Flint Public Library. (Photo courtesy of Flint Public Library)

For his part, Robinson said he’d also watched the library’s transformation under Coles firsthand, though as a student at nearby Flint schools. He said the new space should honor the woman who helped shape it, and its visitors, before its remodel.

“Coming from the city, you see a lot of different names that grace the buildings and you want something that’s a reflection of yourself,” Robinson said. “I myself, as I went to Flint Central and Whittier middle school, used to go to the Flint Public Library, and so it will be an honor to have her on the building.”

Robinson now takes his own students to the library to read books, research historical figures and more. He said he hopes that the name change will help highlight Coles’ work and the library’s evolution, especially for the younger generation of Flint. 

“A lot of times, we lose a sense of history because over time, there’s new people, new faces that become involved,” Robinson said. “They may see these names, but never know the story behind it.” 

While Flint Beat could not reach Coles for comment by press time, the former director did share her thoughts on the name change after the library trustees’ vote:

“I am truly humbled by this proposal coming from members of the community,” Coles said in a Sept. 8, 2022 press release. “After much thought and some soul-searching, I agreed to the renaming. The possibility that the name of an African American woman on a revered institution might be encouraging to subsequent generations of Flint youth and shine a light on the contributions of African Americans to the City was persuasive.”

More Work Ahead

Though progress has been made, there are still a few steps to go before FPL’s name change can become official.

Following the Board of Education vote, Flint City Council also has to approve the library’s new name. The Council and FCS Board will then need to sign an amended District Library Agreement, after which that agreement will need to be approved and recognized by the Library of Michigan, according to Schwartz.

The many layers of sign-off are a result of the library’s name appearing in the current District Library Agreement, a legal document which was entered into by Flint Schools and the City of Flint in 1998 and transformed FPL into a district library.

Previously, the library was a department of the Flint school district for over a century. However, Schwartz explained, a “funding crisis” resulted from a 1994 proposal that fundamentally changed how the library could be financed.

“The schools were collecting a millage to help the library operate and they were no longer allowed to do that after Proposal A,” Schwartz said, referring to the 1994 proposal. “There was no source of funding to operate the public library until it got its own millage.” 

So, Flint Schools separated itself from the library by establishing the latter as a district library alongside the City of Flint—a transition process guided by Coles.

“Gloria worked with the schools and the City to get the district library formed, and then once the Flint Public Library, as a district library, had its governing board, [she] worked to put a millage forward on the ballot to the voters,” Schwartz said, adding that Coles had further helped secure the library’s first two millage votes in 2000 and 2003.

Schwartz noted that during Coles’ tenure, Flint itself also underwent a transition, given a series of economic and demographic changes. She credited the former director with helping the library manage that transition, too.

“She showed us a direction,” Schwartz said. “She gained the loyalty of Flint residents, who vote enthusiastically for our funding. I truly think that we wouldn’t be looking at that brand new renovated building had she not done that work for 20 years at a very, very difficult time of change for Flint.” 

Assuming all further approvals fall into place, Schwartz said the Flint Public Library plans to celebrate both its pending name change and the first anniversary of its reopening in May 2023.

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...