Ola Mae Spinks: Librarian who helped organize ‘Slave Narratives’ at her own expense

Theodora Aidoo July 02, 2020
Ola Mae Spinks, retired librarian who helped organize 'Slave Narratives' - Pic Credit: Family Photo Via freep.com

Ola Mae Spinks, the retired librarian from the Pontiac schools, who is attributed for aiding the organization of the historic “Slave Narratives” in the U.S. Library of Congress, has died aged 106.

Mrs. Spinks worked as a school librarian in Pontiac towards the end of her career in education, she would venture into a remarkable and historic quest of national significance.

Mrs. Spinks and her librarian friend contacted the U.S. Library of Congress and volunteered to visit Washington, D.C., to help organize the “Slave Narratives.”

According to reports, for two months, beginning in June 1972, two Detroit librarians, Ola M. Spinks and Phyllis G. Williams laboured to organize the unwieldy materials in the Archive of Folk Song.

“Mrs. Spinks and Mrs. Williams began organizing the materials for two states, Alabama and Arkansas, of the 17 states covered by the Project,” a communications official at the library told the Detroit Free Press.

“Slave Narratives” from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).

Mrs. Spinks did not just volunteer at what is the world’s largest library, she did so at her own expense.

Ola Mae Walker during her college years in the mid-1930s
Ola Mae Walker during her college years in the mid-1930s – Pic Credit: Family photo Via freep.com

Born Ola Mae Walker in 1914 in rural Mansfield, Louisiana, the family moved to the all-Black town of Vernon, Oklahoma in 1922 where she attended elementary school, then went on to attend Manual Training High School.

In 1934, she got a church scholarship to go to college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics in 1938 from Philander Smith College and began teaching elementary education in Augusta, Arkansas, where she met and married William Spinks in 1939.

Her marriage with Mr. Spinks, who was in military service ended in 1954 and she moved with their two sons from Vallejo, California to Detroit. For many years, she taught first grade in the Pontiac public schools.

Mrs Spinks later earned a master’s degree in library science from Wayne State University. She retired in 1976, finishing her 30-year career in education as a middle-school librarian.

According to her son, Mrs. Spinks was passionate about travelling. She visited all 50 states and every continent except Antarctica. “She was baptized in the Jordan River, walked on the Great Wall of China and played bridge all over the world,” Adrian Spinks said.

Mrs. Spinks attended two churches. Until age 102, she was still driving herself a mile to People’s Community Church in Detroit. She was active in two sororities – Phi Delta Kappa and Alpha Kappa Alpha.

She also was a member of the American Bridge Association, the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society and the Michigan Association of Retired Teachers.

Spinks died June 16 at a senior living center in Southfield, Michigan.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: July 2, 2020


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