In the spring of 1967, DePaul’s Black Student Union issued a series of demands to the university, including an end to discrimination against Black students in university services and organizations and wider recognition of Black culture in academics. Over the course of the next year, Black students became increasingly dissatisfied with the university’s response to those demands and the pace of change.
In May of 1969, the group staged a takeover in the SAC pit and issued a new set of demands. A few days later, an arsonist’s fire broke out in the Lyceum building, where the BSU headquarters were located, and a general strike across campus followed.
This series of protest actions opened up better lines of communication between the university and Black students and led to the development of an African American Studies program, among other changes. Efforts to strengthen the new program were undertaken in the fall of 1969, and recommendations for a program director, additional faculty, and library resources were made.
Dr. Gilbert Sims Derr, who in 1969 was an adjunct faculty member in the School of Education and Human Relations Coordinator for Chicago Public Schools, had a long-held idea for a project to develop a Black Studies research collection. As a graduate student at DePaul in 1948, Derr was researching his thesis on interracial education and discovered that libraries across the country had inadequate materials on Black history—and DePaul’s library was no exception.
In September of 1969, coinciding with the start of the new African Studies program, Derr established the Verrona Williams Derr Collection at DePaul University, a Black Studies collection named in honor of his wife, who was a purchasing agent at Follett Publishing Company. The collection was envisioned as a means to promote better racial understanding through the availability of library resources related to Black culture, life, history, and racial experience. In his stated purpose for the collection Derr said, “…knowledge leading to understanding can be a positive method to stimulate a better racial climate. It is envisioned that the Verrona Derr Collection can contribute to a better understanding especially between Blacks and Whites in this Country.”
Most notable is that Derr contributed his DePaul salary for the next thirteen years to purchase materials for the collection and create an endowed fund to build the collection for the Library.
Students from the BSU joined forces with Derr and a few other faculty and staff members to form the Verrona Derr Committee in the 1970s, to promote the collection and guide its purpose. The committee hosted book drives and events and posted newspaper ads. Its members also encouraged faculty across campus to assign papers and projects that used the collection. At a formal dedication ceremony for the collection held on February 13, 1972, Sheila Radford, a student member of the committee and the BSU, praised Derr for his work to develop the collection and its use, calling it, “Black history in action.”
Many of the materials purchased are in the circulating collection and can be identified by their distinctive bookplate. Books of particular significance are included in Special Collections and Archives, among them literary works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison, and Alex Haley, as well as pamphlets and songbooks.
For more information about the Verrona Williams Derr Collection or for historical records relating to Dr. Gilbert Sims Derr or the Black Student Union, please contact Special Collections and Archives.