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'Lady Who Built Library' Has Door Shut on Name

Policy: Despite woman's 40 years of service in Watts, panel says honor can only go to donors of $1 million.

June 23, 1996|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They say time is money, but not at the Watts Branch Library.

Alma Reaves Woods has toiled four decades to promote literacy in her community: She lugged countless books from the cramped old library to pass out at the Nickerson Gardens housing project. She knocked on endless doors begging for a bond issue to build a new library. Now that the library is built, Woods is passing out invitations to next weekend's gala grand opening everywhere she goes--even at a recent funeral.

That's why friends, fellow activists and local Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. want to name the gleaming new $3-million facility after Woods, known in Watts as "the lady"--as in "the lady who built the library."

But Mayor Richard Riordan's Library Commission passed a policy two years ago reserving that honor for donors of $1 million, and the City Council went along.

No matter that the policy, enacted to attract deep pockets, has failed: Nary a soul has emerged with such a stack of cash in Watts or anyplace else. No matter, commissioners told a throng of 20 Watts library lovers who stormed their meeting in Venice last week. That's the policy.

Board members suggested naming a meeting room after Woods, or the children's section, maybe a special book?

Nope, said the ladies from Watts. They want the whole thing.

"This is not just for Watts. This is for all communities, all citizens who have given their lifetime for some endeavor," said Ann Miller, a member of Friends of the Watts Branch Library, an organization Woods heads that raises money, dollar by dollar, selling homemade cookies, T-shirts, used books and old clothes.

"She's Harriet Tubman, she's Rosa Parks, she's Mary McLeod Bethune, she's Phyllis Wheatley all wrapped into one," said Friends member Arvella Grigsby, ticking off a roster of female civil rights legends. "This would motivate the children walking by to think, 'Maybe someday, something will be named after me.' "

Library officials say they are reviewing the million-dollar policy and may well erase it from the books by summer's end. For now, though, no exceptions.

The Watts activists say it is just another example that shows that the mayor, a multimillionaire philanthropist, is elitist and out of touch. Their complaints echo age-old angers over the perception that government is more likely to honor rich--usually white--people rather than the increasingly minority and impoverished communities it serves in places such as Los Angeles.

"Alma Woods is not a rich woman, probably never will be, but she has donated more in her time and love to the community of Watts than any millionaire could ever donate," Svorinich told the commission. "For a person who has enough to give a million dollars to the city to name a library after them, they're giving of their surplus. For someone who has given 40 years of hard work in order that Watts has a quality library, that's giving of love."

Several other council members said that if the commission doesn't name the branch for Woods, they will try to overturn the decision. Councilman Nate Holden denounced the naming guidelines as "lousy policy" but said, "If you turn your city over to an aristocrat, that's what you get."

"Public buildings should be named as a means of showing extreme respect and recognition for people who have made major contributions for the civic good," said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. "I don't deny that people can do that with money--they can. I just don't think that is the primary way people can do it, and I certainly don't think that's the only way people do it."

*

Alma Woods, 71, learned to read back in segregated Arkansas during the 1920s from her grandmother, who never made it past the seventh grade but pored over each day's newspapers with the children and studied the readers they brought from school. As a girl, Woods loved to play school--with her in the teacher's chair. By first grade, she read so well that she would help others in the class.

"I've always felt that education is life," Woods said in an interview last week in her pink-trimmed Watts home, surrounded by her favorite books: "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran, Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry, Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale."

In the cozy sitting room, one wall boasts a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., with three of his famous quotes framed underneath. Another wall is a montage of memories: cards and pictures and crayon drawings from the scores of kids Woods has nurtured, and a framed painting of an African American girl leaning over an open book by a sunny window.

"It reminds me of me when I was a child--you see that book in there," she laughed. "My mother used to get on my behind because I was supposed to be washing dishes and I was reading."

Woods came West as a teenager, married and had three sons. She ended up a single mother in Nickerson, her dreams of earning a PhD in biology overtaken by the burden of an empty wallet.

In the projects in the 1950s, an activist was born.

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