The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This D.C. library has a new name. Meet the woman it honors.

The library site on South Dakota Avenue NE, where neighborhood activist Lillian J. Huff successfully lobbied for the first library in 1983. (John Kelly/TWP)

Diane Huff-Lyons is pretty sure her late mother, Lillian, would be pleased to know that the new library building in the District’s Riggs Park neighborhood was renamed in her honor. But something else would have been even more important to her: that to make that happen, her friends and neighbors had come together, formed a committee, organized for a common goal and achieved it.

That’s what really would have made Lillian J. Huff proud: community activism.

After all, it’s not community inactivists who get things done. It’s not community disorganizers who push for change. It’s people like the namesake of the Lamond-Riggs/Lillian J. Huff Library on South Dakota Avenue NE.

The $20 million library building was dedicated in June, replacing an earlier library that went up in 1983. And that library wouldn’t have existed without Huff.

“When we were in school, she was always fussing. We had to go far to go to the library,” Huff-Lyons said.

The Huff family — kids Diane and James and their parents, Lillian and James — lived in the 5100 block of 12th Street NE. The closest library back then was the Woodridge branch, two miles away off Rhode Island Avenue NE.

“She said, ‘We’re going to get a library in this community,’ ” Huff-Lyons said. “She kept on and kept on.”

Huff was born in 1931 and grew up in Tampa. She came to Washington in 1953 to attend Howard University. After settling in Riggs Park — on the District’s northeast edge, between Riggs Road NE and North Capitol Street — she threw herself into the life of her community, becoming president of the Lamond-Riggs Citizens Association.

“She was a precinct captain of Precinct 66,” Huff-Lyons said. “When they had elections, she always worked at the poll.”

Huff was a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, where she supported Sen. Edward Kennedy. She backed home rule for the District and co-chaired Walter Washington’s 1978 mayoral campaign.

She led the District’s delegation to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services in 1978 and was appointed by Jimmy Carter to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services. She was vice president of the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library and the first president of the Friends of the Lamond-Riggs Library.

Huff’s work was both political and personal. In the early 1970s, she organized a summer cultural arts program at Bertie Backus Junior High so neighborhood kids had something to do.

“We had drama. We had music — instrumental and singing. We had dance. We had creative writing,” Huff-Lyons said.

There were field trips, too: to Hershey Park and the museums on the National Mall.

“All the kids, when they turned 18, she made sure they registered to vote,” Huff-Lyons said. “She had the cards. They came to the house and filled out the cards, and she turned them in.”

Growing up, Diane and her late brother got used to their mother’s activism. The family attended the Florida Avenue Baptist Church.

“After church, we’d walk to Mayor Washington’s house and go visit him and his wife,” Huff-Lyons said. “There was a time Jesse Jackson had a house next to Mayor Washington. If he was there, we would go visit him and his wife, too.”

She added: “If somebody was going to run in the District, they went to see Miss Huff, especially in Ward 5 or Ward 4. They would talk to her first to see if they were ready.”

Huff’s grandson, James, lived with her for a couple of years after college. She called him “Jay” or “Jay Bird.” He called her “Granny.” Sometimes, James would walk to the library his grandmother pushed for.

“It meant a lot to me, just to have it,” he said.

Huff died on Sept. 17, 2018. At 23,500 square feet, the new library building is nearly 5,000 square feet larger than the one it replaced. It includes meeting rooms of the sort Huff spent a lot of time in, incubating ideas on how to improve the city.

James lives in Los Angeles. Diane lives in North Carolina. I asked Huff-Lyons what she’d like people to know about her mother.

“I want them to know that she was about community and children and families,” Huff-Lyons said. “And that she wanted to have a library there so kids wouldn’t have to go so far to have the resources that they need. That library is beautiful.”

Said grandson James: “She had a lot of love in her heart and soul, not only for her community but for people of all classes. She wanted people to have access to knowledge.”

Knowledge, Lillian J. Huff knew, opens doors. And it took activism to build those doors — those floors, those walls, those book-filled shelves — in the first place.