CLEARWATER — It was easy for two of Christine Wigfall Morris's great nieces to recall their countless visits to her library. "We would walk there after school, but we knew we were not there to play,'' said Carla Johnson, 45.
"She wouldn't even let us read comic books,'' added Louisa Perry, 52. "We had to read a real book and then do a book report. Millions. I wrote millions of book reports for her.''
Mrs. Morris, Clearwater's first African-American librarian, whose name graces the Christine Wigfall Morris African-American Collection at the North Greenwood Library, died on Dec. 7. She was 92.
Although she and her husband, Willie J. Morris, who died in 1991, never had a son or daughter of their own, Mrs. Morris played a hand in helping generations of Clearwater children develop a love of reading.
"She was known as the library lady. She got all of us, all our friends, everybody involved with library activities,'' Perry said. "She instilled in us the belief that knowledge is power. That was her thing.''
Up until the last several months, Mrs. Morris continued to visit the library just about a mile from her home. She'd check out both books and audio books, and when her health declined, library staff would make sure she received her items, according to Rachel Robledo, the branch manager.
"I didn't know her crazy well, but I knew right away that I had big shoes to fill,'' said Robledo, who has held her position for two years. "Everybody I've talked to who knew her adored her, "Miss Chris,'' was what she was called, and she was a revered figure. She made everyone want to learn more.''
Morris was four when she moved to Clearwater from Register, Georgia, in 1926. Her parents, Eddie and Hattie Wigfall, owned a dry cleaning business in what was known as the North Garden Avenue business district.
After graduating from segregated Pinellas High in 1941, Morris attended Bethune Cookman in Daytona Beach, studying home economics and English.
Her career as a librarian began in 1949, according to Christine Wigfall Morris: Stories of Family, Community and History, a 2010 autobiography Morris co-wrote with author Barbara J. Sorey.
Horace Carson, a resident of Clearwater, had spearheaded an effort to bring library services to the African-American community, and once the City Commission agreed to fund it, Carson turned to Morris to become its director. Located on Palmetto Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, it was called ''the Negro Library.'' Although everyone was thrilled to have access to the library, it was clear the community needed more, according to the book.
Her niece, Betty Perry of Clearwater, spent many childhood days in the tiny library.
"I remember that it was such a small building. There was one door in and one door out, and the materials were used, donations from other places,'' said Perry, 69. "Aunt Chris always fought to get us new books. She wished for more.''
And in 1962, Morris received her wish when a standalone library opened at 1250 Palmetto St. According to her book, architects designed the building in a circular shape to allow her "to supervise library activities by herself if necessary.''
Although she retired from the Clearwater library system in 1982, Morris continued with her life's passion by volunteering on the Clearwater Library Advisory Board, the Friends of the Clearwater Library as well as the Pinellas County African-American History Museum.
Barbara Pickell, the director of the Clearwater Library system, recalled how back in 2008, when the city was discussing changing the hours of the North Greenwood Library, Morris, then 86, urged them to be cautious.
"Just up until a few years ago she was right there advocating for the library. She was one of the people who expressed a desire to make sure the library was open and available, particularly to the kids in the community,'' Pickell said. "When you think about it, her career was just remarkable. From nothing, she managed to create a viable library that supports the community, and the results of her work continue to be seen today.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163. Follow @Florida_PBJC.