Atop a photograph of McNair — who was 35 when he died in the Challenger disaster — the tweet read:
In 1959 a librarian called the police on 9-[year]-old Ronald McNair after he refused to leave a segregated library without letting him check out his books.
He went on to become an astronaut and died aboard Challenger. The library that refused to lend him books is now named after him.
According to the tweet, as a child in 1959, McNair attempted to check books out at a segregated library and a librarian called police. McNair went on to successfully become an astronaut, and the library was posthumously named after him.
A commenter linked to a January 2011 NPR piece about McNair’s legacy, “Astronaut’s Brother Recalls A Man Who Dreamed Big.” In it, McNair’s brother Carl recounted the story of his late brother’s visit to the segregated library.
Carl McNair said that “without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, [Ron] decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library.” He added that the confrontation concluded with police convincing the librarian to check the books out for the young boy:
” … he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books.
“Well, this old librarian, she says, ‘This library is not for coloreds.’ He said, ‘Well, I would like to check out these books.’
“She says, ‘Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.’
Carl McNair says that his brother, astronaut Ronald McNair, saw possibilities where others only saw closed doors.
“So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, ‘I’ll wait.'”
The librarian called the police — and McNair’s mother, Pearl.
When the police got to the library, Carl says, “Two burly guys come in and say, ‘Well, where’s the disturbance?’
“And she pointed to the little 9-year-old boy sitting up on the counter.
“And he [the policeman] says, ‘Ma’am, what’s the problem?’
By then, the boys’ mother was on her way, Carl says.
“She comes down there praying the whole way there: ‘Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail.’ And my mother asks the librarian, ‘What’s the problem?'”
“He wanted to check out the books and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here,” the librarian said, according to Carl.
“And the police officer said, ‘You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?’
“And my mother said, ‘He’ll take good care of them.'”
So, the librarian reluctantly handed over the books. And then, Carl says, “my mother said, ‘What do you say?'”
And Ron answered, “Thank you, ma’am.”
In a separate portion of the article, Carl McNair stated that his brother viewed the speculative fiction of the day as rife with possibility, despite pervasive segregation:
“As youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek,” he says. “Now, Star Trek showed the future — where there were black folk and white folk working together.”
And back in the 1960s, that premise didn’t seem believable, Carl says.
“I just looked at it as science fiction, ’cause that wasn’t going to happen, really,” he says. “But Ronald saw it as science possibility.”
In that era, NASA’s astronauts were celebrities — people like Neil Armstrong.
“So how was a colored boy from South Carolina — wearing glasses, never flew a plane — how was he gonna become an astronaut?” Carl says.
At the end of the item, NPR reported:
Ronald McNair was 35 at the time of the Challenger tragedy. To mark the anniversary of his death, a ceremony will be held in Lake City on [January 2011], in which the building that housed McNair’s childhood library will be named after him.
Based on that short paragraph, it appeared readers concluded that the library was simply renamed after McNair in his honor. But the actual story was a bit more detailed.
An undated page for the University of California, Berkeley’s McNair Scholars Program begins:
South Carolina, 1959. A nine-year old Black boy sat on a library counter refusing to leave until the librarian gave him his books. He did not care that the librarian had called the police. He was not phased that during this time in history, places of learning were staunchly segregated. He was unwavering as the police came marching in, confident that the knowledge he sought was rightfully his. And with courage and pride, Ronald E. McNair left the library unscathed with his books in hand, and his mother and brother by his side. Decades later, the Lake City Library would become the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center.
The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center was dedicated in January 2011. An archived Lake City, South Carolina newspaper’s coverage of the center’s opening recounted the story of McNair’s visit to the library in 1959, adding that it was constructed in the “same building McNair defiantly refused to leave without his library books more than a half-century ago.”
Opened in 2011, the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center is a museum that pays tribute to the life of Dr. McNair, a Lake City-born astronaut and physicist who died in the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Through moving photography and artifacts, the museum tells the story of Dr. McNair from his childhood to his death. A renowned physicist who was a pioneer in the field of lasers, as well as an accomplished saxophonist, Dr. McNair from an early age showed a fascination with science and math and overcame the discrimination of the 1960s South to pursue those interests. Housed in Lake City’s old public library, the museum sits next to Dr. McNair’s gravesite along with a statue and square erected in his honor.
The story of Ronald McNair’s visit to a segregated library in 1959 aligns with historical accounts of integration in South Carolina; schools did not desegregate until 1963. It’s also true that the structure which houses the center named after McNair was once the same library — however, the building has since become a museum (not a library) dedicated to celebrating McNair’s accomplishments.