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Carol McNeal, who built a library of black experience at Sacramento bookstore, dies at 86

Carol McNeal, who founded Carol's Books & Things.
Carol McNeal, who founded Carol's Books & Things.

A memorial service is planned this week for Carol McNeal, whose Carol's Books & Things was described by customers as a library of the black experience and a bridge across the racial divide. She died May 26 in Sacramento as a result of complications from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 86.

Two of her children, Tim McNeal and Melba Whitaker, recalled that, if their mother was without a book in her hands, it was because she was doing something to care for them or for their father, the late Dr. Homer "Mac" McNeal. One of Carol McNeal's favorite day trips, Whitaker said, was driving to the nation's oldest African-American bookstore, Marcus Books, in San Francisco's Fillmore District.

"She always had a love of reading, and she would go to San Francisco to enjoy Marcus Books," Whitaker said, "and then she decided we needed something like that in Sacramento. We (African Americans) needed a place where we could come be ourselves – everything for us, by us and about us."

Her store, opened in 1984, started out with books on diverse topics, along with knickknacks for the home, Tim McNeal said. But as African-American customers asked McNeal for books about the black experience, for children's books with pictures of black children and for literature with African-American protagonists, she realized she had enough of a customer base to make the shift in focus.

The store got its start in a small space on Freeport Boulevard not far from Sacramento Executive Airport in a shopping center owned by Corti Brothers, but after five years, moved to the Lanai Shops at 5679 Freeport Blvd. It was there that a diverse throng of Sacramentans from around the region lined up in 1995 to meet civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

The visit, Whitaker said, made people from around the region sit up and take notice.

"We had lines out the door," said Whitaker, who worked in the business for many years with her brother Troy. "We had police officers volunteering to do security to help us out. It was short notice, but then she came.

"We didn’t have a lot of her books ... We had ordered some, but they weren’t there on time. So we had little name plates that they used to put in books, and Rosa Parks signed those for people to put in their books when their books came."

In its 12th year, the shop moved to the larger, 3,000-square-foot spot for which it is probably known best at 5964 South Land Park Drive, right near the post office, in the South Hills shopping center. The McNeals remained there for six years, closing in 2002. They reopened in 2004 on Florin Road at Riverside Boulevard in the Pocket neighborhood but ended up selling the business in 2006.

Before exiting the bookstore business, McNeal welcomed many African-American luminaries, including LeVar Burton, Stokely Carmichael, Cornel West and Julianne Malveaux, to her store. She hosted a packed crowd for an evening with best-selling author Iyanla Vanzant at the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento.

But as her business gained popularity as a gathering place for black intellectuals, it was also targeted by hate crimes. After an arson at the Sacramento NAACP offices in 1993, McNeal told a Bee reporter that she received roughly 15 threatening phone calls. In addition, two white men came to her store and knocked books and other items to the floor, and then her store windows were vandalized by racist graffiti.

More than 200 people showed up one Saturday night in September 1993 to rally around McNeal after she did television and newspaper interviews about the impact that the hate-filled graffiti had on her. In addition, the California Attorney General's Office, the Legislature, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and the Sacramento City Council all sent resolutions to honor McNeal.

It was not the first time McNeal had faced discrimination in Sacramento, Tim McNeal said. When his parents tried to purchase their first home near Alice Birney Elementary School in South Land Park, he said, the homeowners would not sell to them, so they had to make the purchase through a white friend.

Tim and his five siblings attended Alice Birney where they were, for many years, the only black children in the entire school, he said, and their parents taught them that they would have to work twice as hard as whites to achieve parity in jobs and income. Tim McNeal is now the executive in charge of creative talent development and inclusion for Disney and ABC Television Group.

"We often joke that she ran a tight ship," Tim McNeal said. "As kids, we were always aware that if we didn’t make up our beds and clean our rooms before we went to school that she would show up in our classroom (to point out the error). I think my eldest sister Melba tried it once, and we all got the message."

Whitaker said the only homework help the kids received from their parents was to be pointed in the direction of the dictionaries and encyclopedia volumes kept in the home. Although McNeal trained as a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in her hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio, she didn't practice after she and her husband eloped to California.

The couple met at the Cleveland Clinic where they both were working at the time. Besides Melba, Tim and Troy, the couple's other children are William "Billy" McNeal, Betsy Pinkney and Kelsey McNeal.

Carol McNeal was the youngest and only surviving sibling of 17 children, Tim McNeal said, and she had nieces and nephews who were much older than her. No one in her Ohio family calls her Carol, he added. Rather, she's been "Peanut" since birth.

"She was a lifelong learner," Tim McNeal said. "Both she and my dad were very committed to making the lives of people around them better, so education was a big part of what they shared with people. They encouraged people to continually find ways to educate themselves."

On Thursday, the day that would have been McNeal's 87th birthday, her family is having an 11 a.m. memorial service at St. Andrews A.M.E. Church, 2131 8th St., in Sacramento. A reception will follow the service. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that tax-deductible donations be sent to the The Black Group, 6880 Wavecrest Way, Sacramento, CA 95831. In the memo field, note that the donation is for the Carol and Homer McNeal Scholarship Fund.