Ida D. McGhee Shares Behind-the-Scenes Memories of Co-Founder Dr. Donna L. Gilton

Monday, April 08, 2024 11:43 AM | RILA Communications (Administrator)

Dr. Donna Gilton at a CORI Fall Conference, Rhode Island State HouseI first met Dr. Donna Gilton over 20 years ago when I was a librarian at Hartford (Connecticut) Public Library, attending a conference at the New Haven, Connecticut Public Library. I believe the all-day conference was on diversity in our local libraries. Donna was in attendance with Dr. Michael Havener, the then Dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School Library and Information Studies program. The main speaker was Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress, who at that time was the CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. While working on her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, not only did they room together, but Donna and Dr. Hayden became very close friends.

I saw Donna a few other times before relocating to Rhode Island at various library conferences. We were always cordial and she invariably had something humorous to share to make you laugh.

Upon retiring from HPL and moving to South County, near URI, I met with Dr. Havener to discuss the number of unrepresented students of color in the GSLIS program. I humored him by stating, “I guess they do not have any Black librarians in Rhode Island other than Dr. Gilton.” I asked him this question due to my attendance at a Rhode Island Library Association annual conference at Bryant University. I remember seeing only one librarian of color that spring day, Marlene Lopes, former special collections librarian at Rhode Island College, who became a member of CORI. 

I am not sure what Dr. Havener said to Donna. She always used to tell me, “He instructed me to meet with you.” I recollect saying to her, “As a seasoned educator and a pioneering voice in the library world, and due to your immense expertise and passion for librarians, he selected the right professor to meet with me.” And not to mention her institutional and community knowledge. These words would always make her smile, that grin and smirk she would portray.

During our first meeting, she stated that Attorney Denise Dowdell, a former librarian, should be on board for future meetings as we discuss the under-representation of Black librarians in the state. Thus, the idea and discussion proved feasible to organize a group of librarians of color in RI. Therefore, Cornucopia of Rhode Island: A Library Community of Color (CORI) was established. 

Dr. Havener, Dr. Gilton, Denise, and myself would meet several times a month at the home of Dr. Gilton and her mother, Mrs. Hattie Gilton, whom we decided would be ex-officio of our organization. Plus, Mother Hattie always prepared a full course meal, whether it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and we always sat at the formal dining room table and ate off fine China plates. No wonder it took forever to incorporate, we procrastinated just to continue with Mother Hattie’s sumptuous meals. 

After months of meetings, research, discussions, and Denise’s design of the CORI logo, in September 2005 we had our inaugural program at URI’s University Club. An invitation to every RI librarian and library worker of color that Gilton and Havener could think of, including current and former URI GSLIS Prism Fellows, was disseminated. Librarians of color from neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts were also invited, and many attended. Our featured speaker for the luncheon was Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako), former executive director of the Queens Library's Langston Hughes Community Library & Cultural Center in New York. Andrew has returned to RI on several occasions as guest speaker for CORI as well as for RILA annual conferences.

CORI founders Gilton, Dowdell, McGhee, and Havener
at the first CORI program in September 2005

Since inception, CORI has presented at RILA’s annual conferences as well as established a yearly fall mini-conference. Guest speakers for both have included well known and prominent librarians throughout the country. From Dr. Hayden, who returned her honorarium from RILA and benefited it to CORI, with the stipulation that it be used for future CORI programs, to presidents of ALA, former ALA executive director Tracie Hall, and Jack Reed, Senior Senator of Rhode Island. Whenever we invited a notable speaker to Rhode Island to speak pro bono or at a lower speaker’s cost and they accepted our invitation, Donna and I would always be tickled pink.

Dr. Carla Hayden with three of CORI's founders Dowdell, Gilton, and McGhee

Without Dr. Gilton’s input and URI GSLIS support, there would be no CORI. In between writing her books and numerous articles, teaching, and playing the piano for her church choir, Donna was always present for CORI. We normally carpooled together or with other CORI members in our area of the woods to drive throughout Rhode Island for our Saturday morning meetings. I will forever cherish those drives and Donna’s funny stories. When Donna learned that she had cancer, her tenacity and good humor never quit. She preserved through it all without murmuring or negativity and always had a joke to share.

Rest in peace, my first librarian friend in Rhode Island. Your kind spirit and willingness to march on will always be remembered with a smile.

For additional information on CORI, visit

Submitted by,

Ida D. McGhee