We at the Brooklyn Collection are very sad to announce the passing of a great friend to the library, Rioghan Kirchner. Visitors to the collection may recall seeing Rioghan at her volunteer post in our reserve room, where she spent every Tuesday afternoon indexing the Black News newsletter (a resource that she donated) with her faithful dachsund Teddy waiting patiently at her feet. Her warmth and humor will be missed by all who knew her.
In addition to her work with us in preserving the history of the civil rights movement in Brooklyn, Rioghan was herself an activist in that struggle, and her personal story is an interesting one. Born in Liverpool, England, Rioghan began her journey to the United States by first immigrating to Canada, marrying an American, Paul Kirchner, and then moving to Brooklyn in 1955. Her first job after arriving here was as a clerk at the Kings Bay branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Soon after receiving her degree from Brooklyn College, she worked for many years in the Domestic Violence Unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services. She retired in 1987 as a legislative assistant to the City Council.
Inspired by the Southern Freedom Riders, she joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in 1961, thinking that she would simply be addressing envelopes and licking stamps in an effort to promote the cause. Instead she took on a much more direct, active role. As Brian Purnell described in his study of Brooklyn's civil rights struggle, Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings (for which Purnell interviewed Kirchner and many other members of Brooklyn CORE), Rioghan was enlisted as a "tester". Her job was to masquerade as a potential renter to landlords suspected of housing discrimination and ferret out those who denied rental opportunities based on race. She went on to become Housing Chairman and then Vice-Chairman of Brooklyn CORE. Later, she helped start FOCUS (Freedom Organization Coordinated Unity in Shorefront) and organized the campaign against real estate brokers engaged in discriminatory housing practices.
Above, Rioghan and another protestor in the back of a police van after their arrest at a demonstration against unfair hiring practices at Ebinger's Bakery. Below, Brooklyn CORE members leaving the 67th precinct after their release, singing "We Shall Overcome".
Spurred by a desire to educate and inform new generations of Brooklynites in the history of the civil rights struggle as it played out in their borough, Rioghan donated her collection of CORE and FOCUS materials to the Brooklyn Collection. It is a rich resource that includes flyers for protest rallies, photographs, ephemera and clippings about the civil rights movement as it unfolded across the country. Several members of Brooklyn CORE participated in the March on Washington, which has been much in the news lately as its 50th anniversary is later this month, and their efforts are also documented in Rioghan's papers. We are also lucky to house the Civil Rights in Brooklyn Oral History Collection, donated by Brian Purnell, which preserves the first-person testimony of Rioghan and her fellow activists.
Below, Kirchner and other CORE members at the Fast for Freedom -- a 24-hour fast staged at Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty in August of 1961 as a show of solidarity with Freedom Riders.