Alma Smith Jacobs: Beloved Librarian, Tireless Activist

Alma Smith Jacobs served as the head librarian of the Great Falls Public Library for almost twenty years before becoming the Montana state librarian in 1973. Both of these achievements were historic firsts for an African American woman. Throughout her life, Jacobs demonstrated a passion for education and for community building and a commitment to working for racial justice in Montana.

As an adult, Alma Smith Jacobs--posed here (far right) with her mother and sisters at Spring Creek near Lewistown, ca.1920--made numerous contributions to Montana as a civil rights activist. She is most often remembered, however, for her work as a librarian. MHS Photo Archives PAc 96-25.1

As an adult, Alma Smith Jacobs–posed here (far right) with her mother and sisters at Spring Creek near Lewistown, ca.1920–made numerous contributions to Montana as a civil rights activist. She is most often remembered, however, for her work as a librarian. MHS Photo Archives PAc 96-25.1

Alma Smith was born in 1916 in Lewistown, Montana, to Martin and Emma Riley Smith, members of the wave of African American migrants who had been drawn to the Pacific Northwest between 1865 and 1910. Although Montana now has a reputation for being predominantly white, in the early twentieth century there were sizeable black communities in the state, especially in larger cities like Helena, Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls.

The Smith family moved to Great Falls when Alma was a child. After graduating from Great Falls High School, Alma took advantage of scholarships to achieve an impressive education, first at Talladega College in Alabama and then at Columbia University, where she completed a degree in library science. Credentials in hand, and newly married to World War II veteran Marcus Jacobs, she returned to Great Falls, where she found a position at the public library in 1946. Eight years later she became head librarian. From that position, she worked to build the presence of the library throughout the city and central Montana. Continue reading