With all the talk of building a new library in Leeds, it’s fitting to talk about who the library is named after – any why.
Jane Culbreth was the first woman elected to the Leeds City Council in 1960 and served five non-consecutive terms under five different mayors. She urged other women into city leadership, but few wanted to.
One of her biggest accomplishments during 20-plus years on the council was establishing the library in Leeds. More on that in a minute.
Culbreth had a fascinating professional life, working for the FBI in Chinese affairs in Washington, D.C., during World War II. She came to Leeds as executive secretary at the Moss-Thornton Construction Co.’s Leeds office. The firm is best known for building the Talladega International Speedway. Culbreth worked there for 31 years until it closed in 1978.
Culbreth never married and had no children. Instead, she dedicated her life to Leeds and as a national advocate for women’s rights, especially in the workplace. When asked why she didn’t follow the status quo and have a family, she told the Birmingham News in 1981, “Can you imagine doing all these things if I had a family?”
Culbreth served as national president of local, state and national Federation of Business and active in the Leeds Business and Professional Women’s Club and was the first woman to serve on the executive committee of the Alabama League of Municipalities.
She wanted to “create a better image of the working woman,” she told a media outlet in the 1970s. She lobbied on Capitol Hill for the working woman and for 20 years, she worked with the Alabama Legislature to allow women to serve on juries. Her efforts didn’t work until the 1960s when a federal order made the state allow women on juries.
Culbreth was passionate about the Equal Rights Amendment that would provide equal rights for women and even had a pro-ERA bumper sticker on her car. She received many awards for her “advancement of women in the South.”
She told the Talladega Daily Home in an undated article likely from the early 1990s she joined politics because she “wanted to see women more involved in decision-making positions.”
Building a library was top of mind for Culbreth when ran for office a second time in 1964. At the time, Leeds kept their books on a shelf at the high school and later at the former bank building that is now Regions. She secured the downtown building that was a store where the library is housed now and also bears her name. There are talks now of building a new library as part of a project to build a municipal building that would house City Hall, Board of Education, Civic Center and the library on land downtown near Lehigh Cement Co. A vote to increase taxes to cover construction is set for Jan. 22.
When Culbreth ran for office again in 1980, it was for another project: saving the Leeds Southern Railway Depot that was built in 1884 and turning it into a museum and archive. She was again successful. The renovated depot was dedicated in September 1985 and named on the National Register of Historic Places.
She’s served on the Leeds Area Chamber of Commerce and Leeds and Jefferson County historical societies. Culbreth helped compile Leeds’ history for “the book” of Leeds called “Leeds … Her Story,” which came out in 1979.
Culbreth died on Oct. 29, 2009, at the age of 90. The Jonathan Bass House museum on Highway 119 includes a section on Jane Culbreth, including photos, a dress she wore to the League of Municipalities event and a display of many hats she wore.
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