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Minerva France set precedent for Black women in library science, higher education

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Minerva France was relatively unheard of in Westerville — until last year.

Kathryn Kaslow, a historian from the Westerville History Center and Museum found an article written in 1949 that mentioned France and how her pursuit of an education started when she moved to Westerville in 1920. 

Kaslow dived into the center’s archives to uncover more about France and discovered a life that deserved recognition: She set a precedent for Black women in librarianship and higher education, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and working as a librarian at Wilberforce College by 1934.

Since then, France’s name and her work have started to circulate. The center featured France in their online virtual exhibit, “Breaking the Ice: Trailblazing Women in Westerville History” last summer. In February, Robert Frost Elementary English Learners teacher Breanne Reamsnider included France as one of the local Black history-makers in the school’s Black History Month program

Now, France’s legacy will be linked with Westerville City Schools after the Board of Education decided to name its new elementary after France. The building, currently under construction in Minerva Park, is slated to open fall 2022. 

“Some people’s names will never be known if we don’t make them known,” board member Jennifer Aultman said during Tuesday’s board meeting where the board members voted on naming its two new facilities. They also approved naming the new middle school Minerva Park Middle School.

The daughter of a cook and railroad worker from Kentucky, France moved to Westerville in 1920 where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law while attending Westerville High School for three years. She moved to Huntington, West Virginia during her senior year and attended the West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now West Virginia State University) where she earned her bachelor's degree. Her passion for learning led her to the library sciences, a rare career path for Black women at that time. 

She spent time at Columbia University before landing a job as a librarian at Wilberforce College. 

While at Wilberforce, France worked to build the university library's collection of African-American authors. She wrote to authors like W.E.B. DuBois, asking him to donate a copy of his work to Wilberforce. 

For Aultman, who serves as the World Heritage director at the Ohio History Connection, France’s efforts to diversify her college’s library mirrored initiatives currently underway in the district nearly 100 years later.

“She was involved in the same work that our community is involved in and that’s what has tipped me to say that it’s really important recognizing her by naming the school after her,” she explained. 

While working as a librarian, France drove an hour one-way to Columbus to take night classes for her master’s degree at Ohio State University, which she received in 1934. She passed away from an illness the following year and is buried at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus. 

Nina Thomas, manager at the Westerville History Center and Museum, is thrilled to see Minerva France recognized for her accomplishments. 

“As local historians, we scour the archives in the hopes of resurrecting the names and faces of people who have been forgotten and to amplify their stories,” she said. “Minerva’s clear passion for education and learning makes her a natural choice for this honor. To know that students will walk the halls of a building named after someone who worked hard to achieve what other women of color during her lifetime only dreamed of is a powerful moment in Westerville’s history. We are overjoyed to know her story has risen from the archives. She deserves this." 

Robert Frost’s Reamsnider introduced France to students and the district. Reamsnider led professional development sessions during Westerville Educator Day on her work with the Westerville History Center and Museum to spotlight important individuals in Westerville Black history. France was among the local history makers featured.

When Reamsnider introduced France’s story to first-graders during the school’s Black History Month program, she said students connected with her work as a librarian, her love of books and learning and how she attended Ohio State. 

She is looking forward to updating the presentation on France for this year’s program.

“It will be really cool to say that there is now a school that will be named after her,” Reamsnider said. “She is going to have that name recognition and I think our students can be proud to know that they were somehow involved in introducing her to the world.”

“She was lost to history with all of her accomplishments in her short life. But we found her and now we all get to know her.”

Minerva France class photo