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'Opening Up All Of That Experience': Putney School Alum Builds Library's Collection Of Books On Race

A man stands in his apartment near books
Howard Weiss-Tisman
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VPR
Claude Winfield stands among his private book collection in his apartment in Manhattan. Winfield started buying books for the Putney School Library more than 20 years ago, and the school's collection has almost 1,600 books now.

The Putney School's library has a special collection of hundreds of books by black writers and about race, thanks to an endowment started by alumnus Claude Winfield. Now that the school has joined a network of Vermont libraries, that collection is available beyond the school community.

Winfield first visited the Putney School in the winter of 1957. He was with his dad, checking out the small progressive high school — and Winfield realized pretty quickly that he was far away from Harlem, where he grew up.

"So when we got up there it was snow all over the place," Winfield explained during an interview at his apartment in Manhattan. "We pulled into the main entrance where the main building is, and this girl walks out of the building in lederhosen. My father turns to me, he says, 'You sure you want to go to school here?'"

Winfield enrolled in the ninth grade later that year, and he said the student body in Putney was very different than the classmates he had in New York: They were white, mostly, and a lot of them also came from privileged families. They were also ahead of him academically. 

A book plate that says Afro-American Collection, Claude Winfield '61, The Putney School Library, Putney, Vermont, with a tree illustration.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
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VPR
Claude Winfield designed the plate that appears in each of the books in his collection at the Putney School, which is approaching 1,600.

Winfield said he also noticed a difference in the books he was reading: At his school in Harlem, black history and the literature and poetry of African Americans were all in the curriculum — but in Putney, not so much.

Winfield said that even though he was a shy kid in a new environment, there were things he could teach his classmates.

"There is a lack of presentation of our history, and not that deft of understanding of the black experience," he said. "And I'm here not just for my learning, but for their learning. I'm going to learn, they're going to learn. They're going to learn how to live with me, I'm going to learn how to live with them."

Winfield graduated from Putney School in 1961, and he spent his career as a teacher and principal. At every school, he made sure the libraries had plenty of books by African American writers.

He also kept in contact with the Putney community, and about 20 years ago, Winfield decided he wanted to do something special for his alma mater.

Winfield started an endowment and began buying books written by African American authors, or about the black experience, for the school library. He set a goal of 1,500 books, and last year the library met — and then surpassed — that goal.

A person points to a top shelf of books in a library
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
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VPR
Putney School Librarian Sarah Wiles points to books from the Claude L. Winfield Afro-American Collection in the library's fiction section. A piece of artwork by Winfield hangs on the wall nearby.

Sarah Wiles, the librarian at the Putney School, walked around the stacks to highlight some of the collection during a recent visit.

"So like for example we've got books on Jim Crow, The Hip Hop WarsBlack Like YouHow To Be BlackThe Cornel West Reader," Wiles listed.

Wiles said Winfield sends money at the beginning of each year and occasionally makes suggestions for specific books or authors. Sometimes a package from Amazon will arrive from him with a few new books for the collection, which now numbers close to 1,600.

He's probably spent more than $50,000 since he began the collection 20 years ago. Each book has a plate, designed by Winfield, on the cover page.

"It's that total experience that's unshared and unspoken. And how do you breach that wall? How do you bring it about? The books are just the mechanism for opening up all of that experience." — Claude Winfield, Putney School graduate

Putney School recently joined the Catamount Library Network, a group of public libraries around Vermont that share an online catalog. That means the collection is now available throughout the state.

"A book collection is never going to change the world. But having access to knowledge, I think, can really open people's eyes — and, especially in a state where we have so much work to do because we are, you know, ostensibly, the whitest state," Wiles said. "And so I feel like just having access and seeing the point of view of other people that we live with on a daily basis, and reading, hopefully, creates a greater degree of understanding and sparks the curiosity and the desire to learn even more."

Winfield said he never expected that his books would be distributed across Vermont, or that some young reader far away from the Putney School might take out a book by Maya Angelou or James Baldwin, and perhaps inch that much closer toward understanding and compassion.  

"It's that total experience that's unshared and unspoken. And how do you breach that wall? How do you bring it about?" Winfield said. "The books are just the mechanism for opening up all of that experience. And trying to create a learning environment where everybody shares in everybody's experience, not to the exclusion of anybody's experience."

Even though Winfield, now 76, doesn't get up to Putney very much himself, the Claude L. Winfield Afro-American Collection at the school he once attended is still growing.

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