Miriam Matthews was born in Pensacola, Florida and at the age of two her father and mother made the decision to move to California. She graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1922 and then spent two years at the University of California, Southern Branch (Los Angeles). She then transferred to Berkeley where she joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority started by Vivian Osborne. At Berkeley, Matthews earned her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 1926, and was elected to the Spanish honorary society Sigma Delta Pi, following in the footsteps of Louise Alone Thompson. She earned her certificate in Library Science in 1927, becoming the first credentialed African American librarian in the state of California. During this time, Matthews stayed connected with the Deltas, succeeding Vivian Osborne as the second Regional Director of the Sorority’s “Farwest” region from 1929-1930. She also spearheaded efforts in 1929 to establish “Negro History Week” in Los Angeles which then became “Negro History Month.”
Matthew’s first post in Los Angeles was as a substitute librarian at the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch. Later on, she became the branch librarian at the Helen Hunt Jackson Library where she compiled a substantial research collection documenting the contributions of African Americans to California’s history and culture. In 1944 she published The Negro in California from 1781-1910: An Annotated Bibliography. To further her education, she took a leave of absence to earn a Master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Chicago in 1945. After her return to Los Angeles, she was promoted to regional librarian supervising twelve branches in the LA area.
Matthews was a periodic contributor to the California Eagle (1879-1964), the oldest Black-owned and -operated newspaper in the United States, and was often featured in local news stories. A June 1947 article described Matthew’s importance as the Chairperson of the Committee on Intellectual Freedom during the McCarthy Era. It stated that Matthews “vigorously upheld the right for intellectual freedom, and also emphasized the urgent need for intercultural understanding.” She made a report to the California Library Association regarding the organized attempts to suppress freedom of research and inquiry throughout the United States. Her efforts successfully prevented the establishment of a board of censors in the Los Angeles County Public Library.
Matthews received many honors and awards, among them the Titus Alexander Award in recognition of her work documenting the history and achievement of African Americans in California, and an Award of Merit from the California Historical Society. In 2004, the Hyde Park Branch Library was rebuilt and renamed after Matthews. In 2010, she was one of the ten inaugural inductees to the California Library Hall of Fame. In her oral history, speaking about her life lessons and influences, Matthews says “I greatly appreciate having learned early in life to stand on my own two feet, to form my own opinions, to stick by my principles, and to speak up for what I thought was right.” Throughout her life, Miriam Matthews proved to be a well-respected leader and supporter of the African American community. She died in 2003 at the age of 97.