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A Guide to African and African-American Studies

Charles D. Churchwell Obituary

Charles D. Churchwell, former Dean of the Washington WashU Libraries, died Wednesday, September 19, 2018. He was 91.

Churchwell served as the Dean of the Washington WashU Libraries from 1978 until 1987 and is remembered as a formidable administrator with a quick smile and a sense of humor. He was the first Washington University library director appointed at the level of dean. Before coming to Washington University, he had been named by the American Library Association as one of six recommended candidates for Librarian of Congress, in 1974.

Charles D. Churchwell was born on November 7, 1926, in Dunnellon, Florida. He received a B.S. degree in mathematics in 1952 from Morehouse College after returning from the armed forces in 1948. Churchwell graduated from Atlanta University with an M.L.S. in 1953, where he focused on university library administration. He earned a Ph.D. in library science at the University of Illinois (Urbana, IL) in 1966, becoming the first African-American male to earn a doctorate in library science from the university. 

While working on his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, he served as Assistant Librarian and was involved with the planning of the new underground Undergraduate Library. His thesis was titled Education for Librarianship in the United States: Some Factors which Influenced its Development between 1919 and 1939. In 1974 the American Library Association published his book, The Shaping of American Library Education.

In 1967 Churchwell became the assistant director for public services at the University of Houston Libraries, the first African American in a professional position on campus. He recalled that is was a period of “intense” segregation.  He served as a liaison with the Black Student Union when Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was invited to the campus for a talk.

In 1970 Churchwell became director of the libraries at the Miami University in Ohio where he initiated a major redesign and renovation. He served as the university librarian at Brown University from 1974 until 1978 when he left for the Washington University position of Dean of Library Services.

He established a number of lasting legacies during his tenure. When he arrived, there was only one other African-American professional librarian. Churchwell increased the diversity of professional librarians at all levels of the organization and created a partnership with the Special School District of St. Louis County to incorporate a number of their graduates into the library workforce. Though the primary goal of the library is to serve the campus, he created an enduring vision of the library as a community resource. He encouraged librarians to cultivate relationships with the surrounding communities and users from the surrounding communities were welcomed to use the library. The most visible legacy began with his foresight to secure a four million dollar endowment grant from the Danforth Foundation in 1982, to support the libraries’ ongoing technology costs. Valued at over twenty-five million dollars today, it continues to be the envy of many academic library directors.

Churchwell resigned from the Washington WashU Libraries in 1987 in disagreement with a decision to implement an outside consultant's plan to reduce the library staff from 97 to 68. He joined the Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan) Library Science Department as a tenured professor.  Churchwell spent the 1990s as dean of the School of Library and Information Studies at Clark Atlanta University, before retiring in 1999.

Churchwell’s 80th birthday was celebrated at the Washington University’s Holmes Lounge on November 18, 2006. Attendance included Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth and John Unsworth, who was the dean of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  

Churchwell is survived by his youngest brother, Nyle Churchwell and wife Mary Churchwell of Houston, Texas; sister-in-law Ruth Churchwell of Dunnellon, Florida; eldest daughter Linda L. Churchwell-Varga and granddaughter Oona Yvonne Varga of St. Louis, younger daughter Cynthia D. Churchwell and son-in-law Steven J. Duede of Belmont, MA and daughter-in-spirit Angela A. Roberts of St. Louis.

 He was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 60 years, Yvonne R. Churchwell.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m., Saturday, October 13, 2018, at the Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, 4673 Labadie Ave., St. Louis, MO., 63115. A repass will follow the service.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions in his memory be donated to the James E. McLeod Endowment Fund, named after a dear family friend, former Washington University Dean James E. McLeod who helped welcome the Churchwell’s to the St. Louis community. The fund supports undergraduate students who exemplify the qualities of the lives of both Dean James E. McLeod and Charles D. Churchwell, academic achievement, commitment to serving others, leadership, and character. Mail contributions to the James E. McLeod Endowment Fund, Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1082, St. Louis, MO 63130. Please include “In Memory of Charles D. Churchwell” in the memo field.