Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks

Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks.

Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks.

Although each of the authors whose name is engraved on the frieze of the State Library contributed greatly to state literary history, Gwendolyn Brooks holds a special place in the minds of many Illinoisans. Named Illinois Poet Laureate in 1968, Brooks captivated millions with her eloquent poems and prose on the struggles of African-Americans. Her immense literary talent, coupled with her devotion to young people and the importance of reading, made her a familiar figure with State Library personnel. Brooks’ remarks at the 1990 dedication of the new State Library building were a highlight of the ceremony. Her death at her Chicago home on Dec. 3, 2000 at age 83 was mourned by her many admirers, and left many in Illinois looking for a way to honor this most influential figure in state literature.968

Soon after, a suggestion was made to name the State Library building after her. A groundswell of support, led by Governor George Ryan, followed as many recognized the propriety of naming the State Library building in her honor. Leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly agreed, and in late May 2001, the Illinois House of Representatives voted 114-0 on a resolution urging the state to name the building the Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library.969

Secretary of State Jesse White was among the most vocal supporters of the measure. In a letter to the Illinois Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, Secretary White wrote that Brooks:

“was very much a part of the city of Chicago as well as our state. As our poet laureate, she brought poetry to the people through her accessibility and public readings. I believe it is only fitting to honor her in this manner – a library – an institution of learning that is open and accessible to all.”970

Many in the media also supported the move. Chicago Sun-Times writer Steve Neal, an active voice in support of the naming, wrote in June 2002 that:

“no other state has had a more active poet laureate. [Brooks] inspired generations of young people to express themselves in poetry and prose. Her warmth and humanity should be long remembered. It is our State Library that will be honored if it is dedicated to this great woman.”971

Despite overwhelming approval of the measure, not everyone was in support. Some Illinois Republicans felt that the building should be named for Jim Edgar, who had orchestrated its construction. This was reportedly the reason that Senate President James “Pate” Philip did not call the 2001 resolution for a vote in the Senate. Neal, for one, questioned the motive, noting that Philip and Edgar were known to dislike one another. Governor Ryan was so angered by Philip’s actions that he considered naming the library for Brooks by executive order, but eventually deferred to the legislature. Statehouse writer Dana Heupel, while conceding Brooks’ greatness, also disdained the idea of naming the library for Brooks, noting that many buildings and programs were already named for Brooks and that “she should not be singled out among her distinguished Illinois peers as the one most associated with the State Library. Nor should any of the others.”972

But cries of disapproval were drowned out by the many in favor, and in the spring of 2003, a resolution creating the Illinois State Library, Gwendolyn Brooks Building, was easily passed by both the Illinois House and Senate. The resolution was signed into law, and soon the State Library building became the first on the Capitol Complex to be named for either a woman or an African-American.973

Building dedication ceremonies on June 6, 2003, were a landmark moment in State Library history. Rain that forced the ceremony inside to the atrium did not detract from the grace of the event, which was a celebration of Brooks’ rich life. Drums of the Muntu Dance Theatre pounded through the building, and the Chocolate Chips Theatre Company of Chicago put one of Brooks’ poems, “Infirm” to song. The centerpiece of the afternoon was when Secretary of State White and Brooks’ daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, unveiled a replica dedication plaque bearing Brooks’ likeness. The original is permanently mounted on a marble base near the library’s front entrance, a monument to the great poet laureate and towering figure of Illinois literature. In his remarks, Secretary White declared:

“Gwendolyn Brooks was a national treasure who enriched many lives. We are proud and honored that she spent her life here in Illinois, teaching and bringing poetry to our schools, hospitals, and prisons. It is fitting that her name be permanently attached to the Illinois State Library – a place where anyone can access knowledge and appreciate the contributions of such a gifted artist.”974

Secretary of State Jesse White and Gwendolyn Brooks’ daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, unveil a replica of the dedication plaque located in front of the State Library, commemorating the renaming of the building in honor of Brooks on June 6, 2003.

Secretary of State Jesse White and Gwendolyn Brooks’ daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, unveil a replica of the dedication plaque located in front of the State Library, commemorating the renaming of the building in honor of Brooks on June 6, 2003.