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The Lafayette Public Library downtown branch is pictured Tuesday, August 21, 2018, in Lafayette, La.

A grant to fund books, two speakers and a discussion on voting rights history was rejected by the Lafayette Parish Library board whose members said the speakers were "extremely far left."

Not presenting "both sides" of the issue, they said, could further damage the library's image after community uproar over a proposed drag queen story time event in 2018-19.

The library was approved for a $2,700 grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to be used for two discussion facilitators and the purchase of books as part of the LEH's "Who Gets to Vote?" library reading and book discussion program. The grant is part of the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"The series, developed by the LEH, is intended to engage members of the general public in conversations on the history of voting — and efforts to suppress the vote — in the United States," according to the grant application.

One of the discussion leaders was to be Theodore Foster, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who wrote the discussion guide for one of the books for LEH.

Rejection of the grant, Foster said Friday, "is disappointing given the history of African Americans and voting rights.

"It speaks to a larger anti-intellectualism that we’ve seen across the country that would seek to restrict access to broaden the public’s literacy about the right to vote," he said.

At a Jan. 25 meeting, library board member Stephanie Armbruster, who protested against the library allowing drag queen story time in 2018 and 2019, questioned Library Director Teresa Elberson over the selection of the speakers, saying board members in December expressed concern that they should offer balanced views.

Elberson said the speakers were chosen and notified before the board expressed concern, and were advised they had to present both sides of the issue. At the Dec. 20 board meeting, she said the deadline to apply for the grant was Dec. 31.

"These two speakers are extremely, extremely far left leaning," Armbruster said. "They’re not going to represent the other side."

Lafayette Parish is majority conservative and votes conservative she said.

"We need to represent our constituents," Armbruster added.

The library system has an image problem, Armbruster said, and the board is trying to keep it financially solvent. 

In 2018, voters failed to renew a 1.6-mill property tax, one of three property taxes that funded the library system, costing the libraries more than $3 million a year. Another is up for renewal in the next year.

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The library sparked outrage in 2018 when it scheduled a drag queen story time in which men dressed as women read to children. The decision led to a federal lawsuit.

Residents don't support the library system because they say it is too political and has enough money, board member Landon Boudreaux said.

“Sadly," he said, "it started with drag queen story time and it continues to happen."

If the remaining millage renewals are rejected by voters, Boudreaux said, "We don't have libraries."

Armbruster said she did not suggest not accepting the grant.

"My only request, for the image of the library," she said, "was to make sure it's apolitical and it’s not."

Board President Doug Palombo agreed the event should be apolitical.

"We're not trying to make this a right wing or left wing" issue, he said. "We're trying to keep this apolitical and not alienate anybody. Things like this are fine as long as they're not loaded, stacked to one side's agenda, whether it's right or left."

Board Vice President Hilda Edmond, appointed by Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory, said he advised her he did not support accepting the grant.

Voting to reject the grant were Palombo, Edmond, Armbruster, Boudreaux and board member Adele Blue.

Voting to accept the grant were James Thomas and Joan Wingate.

Foster said he wrote a discussion guide for one of the books and was asked by a local librarian to facilitate a discussion on the book. Both books, he said, are mainstream public history books.

"Bending Toward Justice" by Gary May is one of the books that would have been purchased and discussed at the Lafayette public library through the LEH grant. It is described by Duke University Press as "a vivid and fast-paced history, (that) offers a dramatic account of the birth and precarious life of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is an extraordinary story of the intimidation and murder of courageous activists who struggled to ensure that all Americans would be able to exercise their right to vote."

The second book was "Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All," by Martha S. Jones, described as "the epic history of African American women's pursuit of political power — and how it transformed America."


Email Claire Taylor at ctaylor@theadvocate.com.