Esther Jean Walls, librarian, administrator, and educator, was born to Eldist (E.S.) and Jewette Walls on May 1, 1926 in Mason City, Iowa. In 1944, Walls graduated from Mason City High School, the valedictorian of her class. She attended Mason City Junior College before transferring to the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa), where she majored in romance languages with a minor in education. She was the first African-American female student at the State University of Iowa to be elected to the Alpha of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and was a member of Phi Sigma Iota, an honorary Romance Languages fraternity. She graduated summa cum laude in 1948 with a B.A. Although she found no teaching positions open to her in Mason City, Walls did secure employment at the Mason City Public Library. She went on toattend Columbia University, where she received an M.S. in Library Science in1951.
Walls began working for the New York Public Library in1950 and held various professional assignments, including serving as director of the North Manhattan Library Project and as head of the Countee Cullen Regional Library. From 1965 to1970, Walls worked for the non-profit international publishing organization Franklin Book Programs, Inc. She servedas program officer, supervising and administering activities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. She also served as director of Book and Library Services, assistant director for Africa, and director of Adult New Literates Project.
The Esther J. Walls papers date from the 1860s to 1996and measure 1.75linear feet, plus audiovisual material. The papers are arranged in five series: Biographical material, Correspondence, Writings, Photographs, and Scrapbooks. The bulk of this collection documents Walls's educational and professional activities from 1944 to 1996.
The Biographical material series (1946-1996 and undated) includes dance cards and programs that Walls collected as a college student. Messages from her then-boyfriend and names of bands at the dances are found within these memento booklets. Bandleaders, such as Woody Herman and Tex Benke signed some of these items. The series also includes material that reflects Walls's participation in International House, a New York-based organization devoted to promoting peace, an open exchange of ideas, and international understanding. Additional material in this series includes journal and newsletter articles in which Walls was featured, transcripts of two interviews with Walls, and a videotaped interview with Walls.
The Correspondence series (1949-1991 and undated) contains greeting cards, correspondence, invitations, and programs. Walls received some of the greeting cards from acquaintances who were affiliated with the United Nations. The correspondence includes letters received by Walls in connection with her student life and with her professional career. Of particular note are two letters written to Walls by Des Moines attorney S. Joe Brown in 1949. In one letter, Brown, a State University of Iowa alumnus who was the first African American man to be elected to the Alpha of Iowa chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, congratulates Walls on becoming the first African-American woman to attain the honor. The correspondence relating to the Franklin Book Programs consists of letters and schedules associated with Walls's trips, primarily to Africa, to promote literacy. The series also includes correspondence, arranged chronologically, from authors such as Chinua Achebe and Phyllis A. Whitney, bandleader Lawrence Welk, and television broadcaster Hugh Downs. Invitations to and programs from various events held both in the United States and in various African countries are also included in this series.
Featured in the Writings series (1944-1980 and undated) are essays written by Walls when she was a student, her published articles, professional reports, and speeches. The student essays include biographies of two African-American women whom Walls knew while growing up in Mason City. Elderly at the time that Walls wrote the essays during the 1940s, each woman had direct ties to slavery. In a course paper dating from the same period, Walls describes having been a young African-American woman reared in a predominantly white city. Topics examined in the professional reports include public libraries, youth literacy, vocational education, African literacy and libraries, book procurement, and African-American history. In her speeches, Walls addressed such subjects as the role of African-American women in society and in librarianship.
The Photographs series (1860s-1994) include photographs and color photocopies of photographs. They feature members of Walls's family, including a color photocopied image of ancestors who were homesteaders in Kansas that dates approximately from the 1860s. Walls's grandparents and parents are also featured in photocopies of photographs that date from approximately the 1890s and early1900s. The series also consists of images of Walls as a college student, as a librarian, and as a promoter of literacy around the world. Included among these photographs are images of Walls and the other women who integrated Currier Hall at the State University of Iowa in 1946 and images of Walls with nationally and internationally known authors, photographers, and performing artists.
The Scrapbooks series (1971-1972) includes two volumes documenting the International Book Year 1972, during which Walls served as director of the U.S. Secretariat. Pamphlets, flyers, and articles describe the efforts to promote International Book Year, particularly Walls's participation.
Access: The papers are open for research.
Use: Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to The University of Iowa.
Acquisition: The papers (donor no. 393) were donated by Esther J. Walls in 1996.
Preferred Citation: Esther J. Walls papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.