Marva E. Dates Belt, a retired Enoch Pratt Free Library librarian who was active in civil rights issues, died of complications of cancer Dec. 9 at Brookdale Assisted Living. The former Morgan Park resident was 82.
Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Cecial Dates Mosley, a housekeeper at St. Gregory the Great rectory, and Carl Faulkner. She attended Booker T. Washington School and was a 1953 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School.
As an 8-year-old, she was introduced to children’s book author and illustrator Marguerite De Angeli, who was searching for a model for her pioneering book about African-American children. The book, “Bright April” released in 1946, was set in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“”It was a children’s book about a typical black family living in an urban area,” said her sister-in-law, Jannette Dates. “The book was popular among young girls in schools and libraries across the U.S. in the 1940s ’50s and ’60s.”
She also encouraged her brother to break color barriers. Her younger sibling, Victor Dates Sr., was a pioneering African-American student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1953, a year before the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ms. Belt, who achieved a top academic record at Douglass, was encouraged by her high school principal, Dr. Ralph Reckling, to apply to Pembroke College in Providence, R.I.
She was among the first African-American women to attend the all-female Pembroke, which later merged with Brown University. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the school.
Family members said that her mother and stepfather, Richard Mosley, inspired her and and her siblings to attend college.
She worked at the Boston Public Library and also received a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College.
Ms. Belt returned to Baltimore in 1959 and began her professional career at the Pratt. She also received an advanced certificate in library administration from the University of Maryland. She held several posts and retired as head of the Social Science and History Department at the central library.
In 1970 she married a fellow Pratt librarian, Steve Belt. They were active in Baltimore’s civil rights movement and were members of the Maryland Congress of Racial Equality. They were associates of Walter P. Carter, a Baltimore black leader who died in 1971.
“This placed them in the heart of the civil rights movement of the day, working alongside William “Bill” Moore and other national civil rights leaders — James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph — as they argued for the right of all citizens to eat at restaurants in downtown Baltimore and the restaurants found along Route 40, to swim in city swimming pools and to have all children enjoy playing at Gwynn Oak Park,” said her sister-in-law.
“They wrote numerous letters and spoke with reporters from local publications and media stations,” her sister-in-law said. “They marched in support of CORE’s causes and spoke out following the brutal murder of their friend Bill Moore, killed as he walked in Alabama while fighting for civil rights.”
In a 1992 Sun article, Ms. Belt was quoted about the library’s budget.
"There's a misconception about books,” she said. “People think they're a commodity that lasts over time, and, therefore, anything you don't buy this year won't have a devastating effect because you can always come back later and buy it. It's no longer true. The shelf life of new titles has dropped dramatically. The time for buying is very short. If you don't buy a book now, in 18 months you can't get it at all. The publishers simply don't make large print runs any more."
After her retirement from the Pratt, she commuted daily to the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. She researched the enslaved people and Native Americans of Northumberland County, Va., where her mother lived.
Ms. Belt also did research for the play “Having Our Say,” based on the book by Bessie and Sadie Delany. The Delany sisters, who lived past 100 and were the children of a former slave, lived in Harlem and in Mount Vernon N.Y. One became a dentist and the other a home economics teacher.
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Ms. Belt also worked with her family members — her sister-in-law and a niece, Karen Dates Dunmore, as well as Camille Cosby, wife of the comedian — to help write the teachers’ guide used with the book in schools.
In addition to her husband of 49 years, Stephen Belt, and her sister-in-law, survivors include her brother, Victor Dates Sr. of Baltimore; a sister, Loretta Dates Smith of York, Pa.; a niece, Karen Dates Dunmore of Baltimore; and three nephews, Victor Dates Jr. of Atlanta, Matthew Dates of Miami and Craig Dates of Montgomery County.