Our Beloved Memphis Cossitt Library

Cossitt Branch Library began its existence as the Cossitt/Goodwyn Institute.

Frederick H. Cossitt, a native of Connecticut, opened a wholesale dry goods business in Memphis. He was very successful and moved on to New York. He kept friends in Memphis and visited often.

He mentioned to Carrington Mason, a business associate, his intention to make a substantial gift for the City of Memphis. It was agreed that a Public Library was needed.

About that time, Mr. Cossitt made a trip to Europe. On this trip, he subsequently became ill and died. He did not mention the gift of a Library in his will. There was only his correspondence and a note stating his intent to give a library to Memphis.

The correspondence and note, of course, were not legally binding. However, his daughters wanted to honor their father’s pledge and plan. Helen Cossitt Julliard, May Cossitt Dodge, and Mr. Thomas Stokes, each gave $25,000 towards the establishment of the new Public Library in Memphis. Mr. Cossitt also left a list of Memphis businessmen of whom he wished to administer the proposed library. On March 8, 1888, the entire $75,000 was delivered to the businessmen and placed in a trust until plans for a public library were completed.

Under the leadership of these select businessmen, a charter was granted by the State of Tennessee on April 6, 1888, under the corporate name of Cossitt Library. It was further decided that the entire $75,000 from the gift should be put into the library building. The City of Memphis promised to furnish “working expenses” for the library and provided a lot overlooking the Mississippi River at the corner of Front Street and Monroe Avenue. Architects were invited to submit designs, and from these Mr. L. B. Wheeler of Atlanta was awarded the contract for the building.

 COSSIT LIBRARY, Memphis, Tennessee (Circa: 1906)cossitt_bwPhoto Courtesy Library of Congress Archives Memphis Tennessee Collectiontn-00106-cccossit-library-memphis-tennessee-postersLINKS:


 Frederick H. Cossitt Library

Frederick H. Cossitt was one of our many Cossitt ancestors who were philanthropists.  He is, perhaps, best known for establishing libraries in Granby, Connecticut and Memphis, Tennessee. 

On December 18, 1811, Frederick Henry Cossitt was born in Granby, Connecticut.  He was the great-great grandson of Rene and Ruth Cossitt who had settled in this area a century earlier.  For the most part, he remained in Granby until 1826 when his father died.  At the request of his uncle, George Germain Cossitt, he bid Granby a final farewell and moved Tennessee.  After being engaged in business ventures in several southern states, he moved to Memphis in 1842 where he carried on a successful wholesale dry goods business.  In 1859 he made his final move which was to New York City.  His business ventures in New York City involved real estate, insurance, and banking.

In 1846 he married Catherine Andrus of Hartford and they had three daughters and one son.  The eldest daughter, Helen married Augustus D. Juilliard of New York City.  They had no children and upon their deaths, (Helen 1916, Augustus 1919) they left over 12 million dollars to create the Juilliard Musical Foundation. 

Prior to Frederick H. Cossitt’s death on September 23, 1887, he had orally expressed a desire to build a library in his birth town of Granby as well as Memphis, Tennessee.  Although this desire was never reduced to writing, his heirs honored his desire and gave $10,000 to the town of Granby and $75,000 to start a library in Memphis.

Four years later, on April 12, 1893, the handsome red sandstone building was dedicated. It was Romanesque in style, with rounded wings, towering turrets, and gables. (Cossitt facts excerpted from Mary Davant’s book, Cossitt Library, 1888-1959).

The Tennessee Library Association bestowed its first Literary Landmark status to the branch in 1998, and honored it with a plaque.

The plaque reads as follows:
Friends of Libraries USALiterary Landmarks Register
Cossitt Library,  33 South Front
In the 1920s Richard Wright (1908-1960) was denied access to the library because of race. A sympathetic white man helped Wright use the library, thus nourishing his dream of becoming a writer. This story is told in Wright’s famous autobiography, Black Boy Tennessee Library Association.  April 15, 1998

Read more about the history and development of the Cossitt Library! Materials can be found in the History Department’s Memphis Room located at the Central Library. For more information, call 415-2742.

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