How We Gave Away Hundreds of Banned Books in Florida

Members of DeLand Worship Group give away books at the rescheduled Juneteenth event in DeLand, Fla., July 29, 2023. The author is on the left. Photos courtesy of the author.

Our small worship group in DeLand, Fla., was spending much of our fellowship time after meeting for worship agonizing about Governor Ron DeSantis’s declared war on “woke,” which includes banning any teaching or use of books that would make some students (read “White”) uncomfortable about the dark history of slavery and its lasting impact on our country. Many teachers responded by literally covering up their classroom bookshelves to hide titles that might be challenged, putting them at risk of being charged with a felony for offering a student the “wrong” book.

Books about famous Black people and by Black authors started showing up in library book sales, marked as “discarded.” Governor DeSantis butted heads with the National College Board over the content of its Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. Each week, it seemed there was another edict attempting to diminish the serious study of Black history.

Then our group had a eureka moment: we would buy up the discarded books on Black history and give them away to interested readers in a simple act of defiance against the new laws. We had no funds to buy books, nor a place to store them or a plan on how to distribute them. But the leading was strong and persistent.

Left: A young reader browses the selection of free books. Right: Jim Cain smiles despite a rained out event.

I started making weekly visits to our county library, buying up books for a dollar: Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father; Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming; a recently published biography of Ralph Ellison; and children’s books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Other Quakers in DeLand were given books from colleagues and friends equally concerned about the governor’s vitriolic attacks on freedom of thought and restrictions on teaching, especially after he announced he was running for president in 2024.

Our leading grew more insistent. Way opened with the announcement of a community Juneteenth celebration in a popular DeLand park. We paid the $80 fee and started planning: we’d set up our booth with a borrowed canopy, hang our Quaker banner, and display a sign saying “Free Books.” We were jubilant.

For weeks we advertised on social media. The local weekly newspaper gave us extensive publicity. We scoured thrift shops, yard sales, and Goodwill stores. Each reclaimed book seemed like a nod from the Almighty. Boxes of books began flying in from a friend in Los Angeles, Calif., and the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. A Mennonite woman from Pennsylvania sent us $100. Local teachers, librarians, professors, and concerned citizens delivered bags of books to our front doors. The night before the event, we received four boxes of books from New York Quarterly Meeting. We now had almost 400 books to give away. We were astounded.

But on the day of the event, we got rained out. After a two-hour set up, we were open for business long enough to serve two customers: a pair of fifth-grade girls, all smiles after receiving copies of a book on Harriet Tubman. Then the sky turned black. We rolled out plastic, frantically covering the boxes of books as sheets of rain blew sideways into our booth. The organizer of the event announced the closing of the park due to the risk of being struck by lightning, which happens regularly in Florida.

During a brief lull in the storm, we raced to get the boxes loaded into nearby cars. We were drenched, but our precious books remained dry, mostly. During our hustle to dismantle the booth, I was humming a hymn: “The Storm Is Passing Over.” How could it be that despite being rained out, I was actually cheerful?

That evening I re-read George Fox’s most famous quote: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations . . . then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” Our worship group had been patterns and examples of a living faith, at a time of deep despair, fear, and outrage. We would cheerfully wait for way to open again.

DeLand Quakers rush to protect books from the rain. 

The Juneteenth celebration was rescheduled. This time it would be indoors. We had lost about 20 percent of our books, but with the $100 donation, we bought more. On July 29 at 10:00 a.m., we were open for business again, this time with nearly 500 books. The only book for sale was A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes by local professor and historian Marvin Dunn, whose truth-telling work we are glad to support and promote.

At first, there was a trickle of browsers. But as word spread about the quality of our books and that they were, indeed, free, more people came. By noon, we were swamped.

Children shyly picked up books one at a time, and we encouraged them to take any they liked. Smiles erupted as they walked away hugging books to their chests. Grandparents came looking for books to read to their grandchildren. Teenagers chose books not only on Black history but also works of fiction by Black authors for high schoolers.

One member of our worship group noticed a teenage boy who kept picking up a book on Malcolm X and putting it back. “If it is calling to you, why not read it?” she asked. He said, “I’ve heard some things: he’s controversial. I don’t know if I should.” “That is the beauty of books,” she responded. “Reading voices you may not agree with might show you new ways to look at things. Then you will actually know what they said, not what you’ve heard from others. And you get to make up your own mind about whether you agree or not.” He stood up tall and confidently took Malcolm X and another book on MLK too.

An elderly woman flipped through a box marked “Read Aloud,” looking for books to read to her “grands and great-grands.” She said she had been a teacher in California in the 1980s. “Our school didn’t have any books on Black history, so I went out and bought some. These are beautiful. I can’t believe you’re giving them away.” She reached into her purse and handed me a five-dollar bill. “I want to make a donation.” Then we embraced. Spirit was with us.

By the end of the event, only one box of books was left. The next day at meeting for worship, we shared how deeply spiritual the experience had been, a blessing for the givers of books as much as for the receivers. I felt a deep sense of peace, even hope.

The local paper ran a half-page story on our efforts. We are getting a steady stream of donated books from people inspired by what our small group managed to do. We are all in unity that we will do this again, waiting in the Light for where and when.

Kathy Hersh

Kathy Hersh is a longtime Quaker and has been a member of Miami (Fla.) Meeting since 1990. She lives in DeLand, Fla., where she worships with DeLand Friends and is active in her community and Southeastern Yearly Meeting.

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