For almost fifty years, Wessie Connell introduced generations of Grady County children to the power of knowledge. Without any formal education beyond high school, she created an award-winning library system in Cairo, Georgia, and was a leading advocate of free access to information for all people. Her desire to expose children and adults to the joy of reading led her to develop innovative ideas that are now standard in public libraries: children’s story time, summer reading clubs, book mobiles, and branch libraries.
Wessie Gertrude Connell was born in Cairo on November 21, 1915. She excelled in school. During her first year at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, she became ill with rheumatic fever and was prescribed bed rest, during which she read the Harvard Classics. Impressed with her self-taught education, two Cairo citizens asked her to become the city’s first librarian. She started Cairo’s first library in 1939 with 110 books housed in a small room above city hall.
She promoted the library by visiting local schools with the 4-H clubs and telling children how books were full of exciting stories and ideas. As her collection grew, she stocked books in businesses, general stores, and gas stations, which functioned as branch libraries to increase outreach to her users.
Connell believed that all people should have access to knowledge, whatever their race or ethnicity. Despite community opposition, she provided books and library services to Black children in segregated schools. She quietly took books to the schools, held story hour herself, and encouraged Black families to keep books in their homes to loan to others since segregation prevented their routine use of the library.
Connell understood that to make a library vital to the community she had to be a politician as well as a librarian. She regularly attended city council meetings and developed personal friendships with city leaders as well as with leaders throughout Georgia. After years of advocating for a real library to be built in Cairo, Connell finally received her wish. In 1964 the family of local businessman Walter Blair Roddenbery donated $185,000 to build a new library in his memory. This was no ordinary library but a classical structure with white Greek columns; inside, users could sit in restored leather couches to read under antique chandeliers.
Because of Connell’s tireless determination to build a first-class library system, she received numerous awards both locally and nationally over her lifetime. Connell never officially retired but became ill with cancer and died in 1987 at the age of seventy-two. Her final honor came in 2002, when she was inducted posthumously into Georgia Women of Achievement.