From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

O'Rourke, James Ralph , Sr.

(born: 1913  -  died: 1999) 

In 2008 it was discovered that James R. O'Rourke, Sr. was the first African American graduate of the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science., having  graduated in 1957. Prior to his enrollment, O'Rourke had been head librarian at Kentucky State University (KSU), a position he held from 1949-1975.

Before coming to Kentucky, O'Rourke was a history instructor and served as head librarian of Stillman Junior College [now Stillman College]. O'Rourke was a 1935 graduate of Stillman Junior College, a 1947 sociology and economics graduate of Talladega College, and a 1947 graduate of Atlanta University [now Clark Atlanta University], where he earned a B.S. in Library Science. He had previously owned a drugstore and  shoe repair shop.

O'Rourke had also been a singer, actor, barber, Pullman Porter, and shoe shiner. In Kentucky, he was a library leader. O'Rourke was the author of several articles and co-authored the Student Library Assistants of Kentucky (SLAK) Handbook, which was distributed throughout the United States and to some foreign countries.

O'Rourke and C. Elizabeth Johnson, the Central High School Librarian, had co-organized SLAK in 1952, the only state-wide organization of its kind in the United States. The organization was created to spark students' interest in library science and provide scholarship opportunities to seniors who planned to go to college. O'Rourke also led an annual workshop to assist public library employees in getting certification, and he provided library training.

O'Rourke was one of the first African American members of the Kentucky Library Association (KLA). He also held several positions in community organizations. He was a civil rights advocate and served as presiding chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Lexington, KY, 1966-1967. He was a member of the Governor's Planning Committee on Libraries, 1967-1968, and co-chairman of the Lexington (KY) Librarians Association. O'Rourke was the last chairman of the Librarian's Conference of the Kentucky Negro Educational Association, 1952-1956. He was a member of the American Library Association, the Southeastern Library Association, and the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He was a member of the Kentucky Black History Committee of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and was a co-contributor to the Commission's publication, Kentucky's Black Heritage.

James R. O'Rourke, Sr. left Kentucky a few years after his retirement from KSU in 1975 and settled in North Carolina. Born in Tuscaloosa, AL, he was the oldest child of Sally Reese and Timothy R. O'Rourke. He was the husband of George M. Wright O'Rourke [also a UK Library School graduate, 1966] and the great-grandson of Evalina Love and Shandy Wesley Jones. Shandy Jones was a slave who was freed in 1820 and later became an Alabama Legislator, 1868-1870 [see Descendants of Shandy Wesley Jones and Evalina Love Jones, by Pinkard and Clark].

Information in this entry comes from O'Rourke's vita and the memorial tribute to James R. O'Rourke, Sr., provided by Dr. James R. O'Rourke, Jr. In 2009, the University of Kentucky Libraries and the School of Library and Information Science nominated James R. O'Rourke for the Lyman T. Johnson Torch Bearer Award (posthumously) for his work and dedication to librarianship in Kentucky. The award was received by his son, Dr. James R. O'Rourke, Jr.

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Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“O'Rourke, James Ralph , Sr.,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 14, 2024,

Last modified: 2020-08-19 17:31:56