Bibliophiles and Collectors  of African Americana


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Unlike many of these early bibliophiles, my enchantment with the collection of African history

and culture began in my early childhood. As I grew older, however, these visionary

collectors were there like intellectual parents to guide my development as a bibliophile.

The old saying is true: “When the pupil is ready, the master(s) will appear.”



Bibliophiles and Collectors  of African Americana

By Charles L. Blockson


Had it not been for these men and a few women, hundreds of volumes needed today for research would not be in our major collections. Somewhere, there should be a Hall of Fame for these incurable bibliomaniacs.—Dr. Dorothy Porter Wesley

These encouraging, thoughtful words were spoken many years ago by my late mentor and friend, Dr. Dorothy Porter Wesley, whom I call the Queen Mother of African-American bibliophiles and collectors. During a career at Howard University that spanned forty-three years, including many years as curator of the university’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Dr. Wesley transformed Howard’s collection of black culture into an internationally known treasure. Probably because she was a collector herself, she displayed a special affection for collectors. She once told me that, “All the collectors that I have known have indeed been bibliophiles, since the term bibliophile means simply ‘love of books.’ It seems to me that the two words, collectors and bibliophiles, are interchangeable.”

I could not begin to record my life as a collector without paying tribute to these early pioneers. Many times throughout my long career as a collector, whenever I became discouraged, I would pick up a book or a magazine and read about the dedication of these pioneers, and it would revive my soul. Simply put their voices and example would not allow me to rest.

Their lives became the balm in my own personal Gilead. Their dedication in the pursuit of the preservation of our heritage, bound in cloth and vellum, inspired me. Their legacies deserve to thrive and prosper along with the words that I am writing about my life as a bibliophile. In the final analysis, after all, I must serve to inspire those who come after me in the same fashion that those who came before me became the wind beneath my wings. My job now is to convey some small sense of the mind and spirit of the book collector of African descent, so that the questions that arise in the minds of newer and future generations of black bibliophiles can be met in some small way with answers from the mind of one of their elder fellow travelers.

Unlike many of these early bibliophiles, my enchantment with the collection of African history and culture began in my early childhood. As I grew older, however, these visionary collectors were there like intellectual parents to guide my development as a bibliophile. The old saying is true: “When the pupil is ready, the master(s) will appear.” As I prepared myself, my masters, sage-like, appeared to guide my path. As has been the case with so many black bibliophiles, I did not spring fully formed from the brow of some great bibliophilic god, ready to go forth and collect. There was a legion of African-American collectors before me who spent their lives in often unrequited toil, documenting and collecting evidence of the ideas and achievements of people of African descent and the world which defined them and which they in turn defined. It is their soul force with which I identify the most closely; it is their pain, feelings of triumph and tragedy and satisfaction that I share

The first substantial collections of black literature were undoubtedly amassed in the fifteenth-century cultural centers of Alexandria, Songhai, and the University of Sankore. But because those civilizations were destroyed, little is known of any serious effort to collect black literature until the German naturalist and anthropologist Johann Fredrich Blumenbach began his work in dividing mankind into five racial classifications. As a result of this work he accumulated the first known European private collection of black literature, described in his De generis humani varietate nativa liber, and included poetry by Phillis Wheatley as an example of distinguished Negro achievement.

While Blumenbach’s motives were classically academic in providing tools to improve the understanding of differences within the human species, little did he know that he was preparing a double-edged sword that could be used for or against blacks. Unfortunately, the attention he drew to racial differences offered those with less noble purposes discriminatory information that could then be twisted and adulterated in order to malign other races.

Blumenbach gathered rare works of celebrated African Americans such as Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, and Anthony Amo to support his belief that people of African descent were indeed men and women of literature and science. Abbe Henri Gregoire, who became Alexandre Dumas’ teacher, credits Blumenbach with compiling the first European library of black literature. It was, however, the priest himself who wrote the first history of black literature, a research project so complete that his reputation is based primarily on that book.

Originally published in 1808 in France and in 1810 in this country, Gregoire’s book was entitled Enquiry into the Moral and Intellectual Faculties of Negroes. Since then, the treatise has become more than just a prime tool in the research of early black literature and is an outstanding forerunner of Arthur Schomburg’s bibliographic checklist. It is now a collector’s item. In 1968, I purchased a copy of the translation for $75, but I have seen it offered more recently for $3,000. I purchased a copy of the French edition for $300 from a New England dealer in 1987.

In 1826, Alexander Mott [Abigail Mott, 1766-1851] published his Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Color. This work served as a storehouse of slave narratives, news items, and other literature pertaining to early personalities of African descent. I have used this book to familiarize myself with little-known personalities whom Mott included in his book. Mott was not the only white American compiling a collection of literature on slavery at the time. In 1872, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, two wealthy brothers from New York State who were known for their dedication to the abolitionist cause, donated over 2,000 anti-slavery writings to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

A contemporary of the Tappan brothers, The Reverend Samuel May, Jr., enthusiastically assembled a large collection of anti-slavery literature during the period when he was speaking out against the evils of slavery. Shortly before his death, he donated his important collection to Cornell University. The May collection contains extensive materials relating to foreign affairs, slave narratives, and many controversial topics besides. It has been enhanced by the publication of a catalog that consists of 4,500 pamphlets, 1,500 other publications, 729 newspapers, and 2,679 miscellaneous items. The catalog has become a collector’s item.

I purchased my copy in 1963 from a book dealer in Syracuse, New York. When the American Anti-Slavery Society chose as its motto “Immediate Emancipation,” it could not have chosen a more dedicated, fiery spokesperson to promote its views than Theodore Dwight Weld. Through the efforts of the well-known evangelist, teacher and lecturer, the crusade to end enslavement was advanced. Weld’s most famous hard-hitting and searing pamphlet, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), is a collection of sketches, testimonies, reports and narratives. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of Weld’s converts, American Slavery was the seed from which her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) grew.

The materials which Weld used to write the pamphlet were donated to Oberlin College in Ohio, forming one of the foundations of what has become a collection of anti-slavery propaganda. Later, other abolitionists and collectors such as William Dawes, John Keep, Oliver Johnson, and William Goodell strengthened the Oberlin College collection with other anti-slavery items. Another white collector, C. Fiske, [Caleb Fiske Harris] better known for his poetry collection at Brown University, assembled a good slavery collection which was purchased by the Providence, Rhode Island, Public Library in 1884.

No comprehensive work dealing with early African-American collectors and collections would be complete without chronicling the work of David Ruggles. Although his life and writings never gained a niche in the annals of American literature, for me his life was almost as exciting as Benjamin Franklin’s. Ruggles was probably the first known African-American book collector. He was born free in 1810 in Norwich, Connecticut, and was known for his intimate knowledge of law as it related to cases of formerly enslaved escapees on the Underground Railroad. Ruggles was a major station keeper on the New York City branch of the Railroad. A noted orator, Ruggles widely circulated essays and pamphlets, which infuriated pro-enslavement agitators and led to the burning of the bookstore which he had worked to establish. His magazine, Mirror of Liberty, published in New York in 1838, was the first magazine produced in the United States by an African American.

As a collector, I was always fascinated with Ruggles as well as with his friend James W.C. Pennington (1807-1870) who was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland not too far from where my ancestors lived. Aside from owning a small collection of rare books, he was a teacher, a clergyman, author, historian, and abolitionist. While a young man, he learned blacksmithing and worked at the trade until he ran away on the Underground Railroad. After a perilous flight, he arrived in Pennsylvania, where he was educated. Later, he taught school in Long Island, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut. In 1850, Pennington purchased his freedom and, in 1851, while in Europe, was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the University of Heidelberg. He also represented Connecticut at the London Anti-Slavery Convention of 1843.

An almost wholly neglected but indispensable category of institutions which has to be associated with the history of book collecting among people of African descent has been the literary and historical societies. Dr. Dorothy Porter Wesley compiled a list of these early institutions and included the list in an article entitled “Early American Negro Writings: A Bibliographical Study,” published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America (1945). A dynamo of research and resourcefulness, Dr. Wesley provided black bibliophiles and researchers with invaluable information in this area, as well as in many others, about the tradition in which we work. She discovered that most of these societies were located in Philadelphia. As early as 1828, William Whipper, the wealthy and respected abolitionist and book collector, organized the Reading Room, which had as its express purpose “the mental improvement of people of color in the neighborhood of Philadelphia.”

By 1854, the African-American community of Philadelphia served as a nurturing soil for other ground-breaking, black cultural organizations. The Banneker Institute was opened in that year, named for the well-known African-American scientist and astronomer from Maryland, Benjamin Banneker. The Institute housed a large portion of Banneker’s papers as well as an impressive library of books and other documents related to the African Diaspora. This organization was the forerunner of the Afro-American Historical Society, established in 1897.

The outstanding collection of the Banneker Institute and some items from early African-American bibliophiles were donated to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the 1930s, due largely to the fact that the African American community of Philadelphia did not have a museum in which to preserve their proud history. Since the 1970s, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Library Company have shared their holdings of African-American history, much of it having originally belonged to the American Negro Historical Society.

Though small in numbers, Philadelphia’s African-American community included what would later be termed the “talented tenth,” which had among its number some of the earliest bibliophiles and collectors. Long before the present-day Afro-centric and multi-cultural movements claimed credit for galvanizing black pride and self-respect, Robert Mara Adger, furniture merchant, political activist, bookseller, and pioneer black bibliophile, labored to compile one of the finest collections of the 19th century. I was able to obtain a copy of his Catalogue of Rare Books and Pamphlets: Subjects Relating to the Past Conditions of the Colored Race and the Slavery in this Country, published in 1894. This catalog describing rare works is itself considered “damn rare.”

Adger was one of the original organizers of the Banneker Institute. After his death, a major portion of his collection was housed in the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons of Philadelphia, the former home of Stephen Smith, a wealthy African-American abolitionist and book collector. Other items in the Adger Collection were purchased by his book-collecting friends William C. Bolivar, Arthur Schomburg, and Henry Proctor Slaughter. In 1993, I helped to establish a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker at Adger’s South Street home in Philadelphia.

Foremost among antebellum black collectors and bibliophiles were men such as Robert Purvis, Sr., William Still, William Still, Isaiah C. Wears, and John S. Durham. All of these men connected with the anti-slavery movement were agents of the Underground Railroad and wrote important “race books” and pamphlets that had a profound effect on African Americans during the periods before the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century. William Whipper, abolitionist, entrepreneur, and reformer, accumulated an extensive collection of books. His grandson Leigh Whipper also collected books on black culture, though he is better known for his role in the classic movie, The Ox-Bow Incident (1939).

Most of their collections were lost or given away by disinterested relatives or by individuals with little interest in black culture. Luckily, several of William Still’s books found their way to the Blockson Collection, having been donated by his descendants. Nearly seventy years ago, the collection of Robert Purvis, Sr., was donated to the University of Pennsylvania, where it was largely ignored by the librarian. A portion of the collection was relocated in the University’s Special Collections Department in 1995.

Another Philadelphia collector who gained acceptance was Adger’s friend, William C. Bolivar, known affectionately as “Uncle Billy Bolivar.” He was named the “Pencil Pusher” because, for twenty-two years, he wrote a column by that name for the Philadelphia Tribune. Bolivar was an intimate friends of Arthur Schomburg, who often traveled to Philadelphia from New York to exchange books and discuss acquisitions with collectors and members of the Philadelphia American Negro Historical Society. Both belonged to that society; Bolivar was actually a founding member.

Elinor Des Verney Sinette, Schomburg’s biographer, told me that, when Bolivar visited Schomburg, he had been truly impressed with what he saw, noting that, “Schomburg’s collection is simply wonderful.” I own a copy of the rare and slender catalog of Bolivar’s collection that a group of his friends published as a birthday gift to him in 1914 at the suggestion of Dr. Nellie Bright. He died a few months later. On the cover of the catalog is a photograph depicting Bolivar as an elderly man with a cigar in his hand, reading a book. What caught my attention immediately were his very worn laced shoes. I smiled when I thought to myself that dedicated collectors have similar traits, i.e., “books before shoes.”

The city of Philadelphia can claim many of the most important African-American ministers of that period, from Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to Bishop Richard Robert Wright and Archdeacon Henry L. Phillips. A brilliant minister and a passionate book collector, Phillips, Pastor of the Church of the Crucifixion, was a friend of Bolivar’s who lived to be 100. When Bolivar died, Archdeacon Phillips delivered the funeral oration. In summing up the oration, Phillips said, “As to knowledge concerning race, what Bolivar did not know was not worth knowing. He was a veritable walking encyclopedia.”

William H. Dorsey, a friend of Bolivar’s, was a member of an old African-American family and the son of the founder of the celebrated Dorsey Caterers. He was an artist and a bibliophile who devoted much of his time to assembling over four hundred scrapbooks that document the history of Philadelphia’s African-American community; together the scrapbooks contain over nine hundred biographical files. At one time, Dorsey possessed a private museum which occupied three rooms in his large home. The museum was described as being “without exception, the most remarkable collection of books, data, clippings, and curios concerning the Negro race in the world.” By 1903, Dorsey’s collection represented over forty years of labor. He was the custodian of the documents of the American Negro Historical Society, and a large portion of his collection was donated to Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania, where it lay hidden in storage for decades.

This a minor disappointment in the larger tragedy of many private collections of information with regard to African people. Often, because our institutions do not have the necessary funding to facilitate timely processing and upkeep, donated items languish for months and even years in storage. Some items deteriorate beyond reclamation. At other times, the people placed in charge of the items either do not have an idea of their significance or are simply not interested. Fortunately, Cheyney State took the William Dorsey collection from storage and took active steps to preserve those records. I remember how impressed I was with the scope and breadth of Dorsey’s work when Sulayman Clark, Director of the Dorsey Collection Preservation Committee, asked me to appraise the collection in 1979.

William Dorsey found a dedicated comrade in Joseph W. H. Cathcart, a janitor with a penchant to “preserve the good things he read in newspapers about his race.” Cathcart began assembling scrapbooks on African Americans in 1856, and by 1882 he had one hundred of them. For his diligence and persistence, he was affectionately called “the great scrapbook maker

There were a few other African Americans associated with collecting “race books” in Philadelphia between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s. Among them were Theophilus Minton, Thomas H. Ringgold, William Potter, Edward Harris, George Carrett, and Bishop Richard R. Wright. Leon Gardiner, a younger member of the American Negro Historical Society and one of the last survivors of the original group, kept the collection of the above-mentioned men intact and donated them to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the 1930s.

Reading about these early Philadelphia collectors had an enormous influence on me as a collector and led me to search for information about their lives. Toward this end, I learned that William S. Scarborough, an African-American scholar of classical Greek on the faculty of Wilberforce College in Ohio, assembled a small but important collection of books. He shared information and traded books with his Philadelphia bibliophile friends and with publisher and bibliophile Wendell Dabney of Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the leading collectors in the early twentieth century.

I am continually amazed at the variety of celebrated African-American personalities born before the turn of the century who ere connected to books. For nearly fifty years, I have treasured the book of Bert Williams’ Son of Laughter (1923), a biography of the great comedian’s life. I purchased that book in 1963 for ten dollars. I did not know that Williams was a great reader and collector of books relating to black culture until I read his biography. I envied him after reading that he had owned a copy of John Ogilby’s Africa, published in 1670 and one of the few books extant from that period which trace the history of many of the ethnic groups of Africa. Williams once told a friend that, “I think that, with this volume, I could prove that every Pullman Porter is the descendant of a king.” I know the feeling that Williams must have had. Often, when children visit the collection, I gain their interest and attention by telling them what ethnic group in Africa they resemble. It never ceases to amaze me how they jump to attention and, soon, every child in the room begins a passionate query, “Who do I look like? Who do I look like?” And some people dare say that African Americans have no desire to look back at their past!

I was pleased to learn that, although Bert Williams made a fortune as a black-faced minstrel showman, behind his painted face he deeply loved preserving the history of his race. Who among us could resist a natural attraction to a man like Williams, whose library contained the works of Muhammad, Confucius, Darwin, Voltaire, Kant, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Paine, Wilde, Twain, Wheatley, and Douglass?

Williams’ library contained an unexpurgated edition of The Arabian Nights. A member of the Ziegfeld Follies, Williams reportedly in 1920 made more money that the President of the United States. Besides sharing similar interests in collecting and sports, Williams shared something else which I count among my quiet diversions: an interest in astrology.

The Moorland Foundation at Howard University in Washington, D.C., was established in Jesse Moorland’s name with the expectation that research would be continued in the areas that Moorland’s collection represented. During the same time period that Moorland donated some 3,000 books of his collection to Howard, another black Washingtonian, Daniel Murray, became well known as a bibliographer. In 1900, Murray, an employee of the Library of Congress under the direction of Head Librarian Herbert Putnam, organized a presentation of 500 titles culled from a list of more than 1,100 books, articles, and pamphlets representing African-American authors for exhibition in the Negro authorship section of the Paris World Exposition of 1900.

The Spingarn name has become associated with wealth, literature, law and civil rights. Both Joel Spingarn and his brother Arthur, members of a prominent Jewish family, were founding members of the NAACP. Arthur Spingarn was wealthy enough to support his desire to “collect books written by Negro authors.”

In 1948, Spingarn donated his entire collection of rare books and paintings to Howard University; its special collections department has since been renamed the Moorland-Spingarn Collection. Dorothy Porter Wesley told me that, when she was packing up Spingarn’s books in his New York City apartment on an extremely hot day, she removed her dress and worked in her slip as her husband, James, assisted her. She was startled at one point to learn her only child, Connie, was stuck in the apartment building’s elevator. Having become so engrossed in her work, she forgot to check on her own daughter! After Dr. Wesley’s death in 1996, I appraised her library, an extensive collection of books, pamphlets, prints, posters, stamps, ephemera, and sculpture.

Another collector, Alain Locke, was born in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Berlin. Although Locke was not a bibliophile, he collected books by and about the people of the African Diaspora. Dr. Wesley told me that it took her several days to unpack the several collections of books, manuscripts, artifacts, paintings, and oddities that Locke bequeathed to the Moorland-Spingarn Collection. Locke was a prodigious collector, saving even the ephemeral slips of paper that he collected over a lifetime of activities. Some people would call him—and any other bibliophile, for that matter—a “pack rat.”

Although I have seen the time-consuming process of cataloging firsthand and have participated in it myself, I must admit that I have probably made it only nominally easier for those who will catalog my personal holding to do so. One of my collecting idiosyncrasies is to save all of my Christmas, birthday, and greeting cards, airplane, train and theater tickets, and business cards. I was pleased to join the ranks of such writers and collectors as Locke and Wesley in this regard.

Locke’s former student Glenn Carrington began collecting while still a student at Howard in the 1920s. He had a passion for Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature and a Russian of African descent, and also owned a substantial collection of literature related to gay men. He collected books, manuscripts, music, and many other items relating to the Harlem Renaissance, including the work of the poet and writer Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). After his death in 1975, Carrington’s collection, containing more than 2,200 books in fifteen languages, five hundred recordings, and a variety of other items were acquired by the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University. In honor of Carrington’s commitment, the Center published an attractive catalog.

No history of African-American collectors and bibliophiles would be complete without giving some attention to the career of Henry Proctor Slaughter. He earned a law degree from Howard University in 1900 and remained in Washington, D.C., for the rest of his life. When he was not collecting, Slaughter worked in the Government Printing Office. As one of former slaves, Slaughter is reported to have had a house filled with literature relating to black culture that included 10,000 books, 100,000 newspaper clippings, and 3,000 pamphlets. In addition, Slaughter assembled a complete collection of information on African-American prizefighters from Bill Richmond to Joe Louis. After his death, a large portion of Slaughter’s collection was purchased by Atlanta University in Georgia. I am indebted to Dr. Wesley for giving me Slaughter’s copy of the rare and highly-sought-after book, Sketches of Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia (1841), which was published anonymously and identified as the work of Joseph Wilson, “a man of color.”

Most serious collectors enjoy comparing holdings with other collectors. During the period between 1900 and 1920 when wealthy collectors such as J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Huntington, and Jerome Kern were building their fabulous collections of Americana, several of Henry Slaughter’s African-American collecting friends occasionally gathered at his Washington, D.C., home to smoke good Cuban cigars, drink bourbon, and share their Negro book stories. Sometimes, the group focused on an erotic book that someone had added to their collection, often resulting in risqué discussions.

John Wesley Cromwell, Sr., Carter G. Woodson, Arthur Schomburg, Henry Proctor Slaughter, Alain Locke, Charles Wesley, and William C. Bolivar were among the collectors and bibliophiles who gathered in Washington, D.C., from time to time to discuss their work. Cromwell organized the Negro Book Collectors Exchange in 1915, frequented by himself and Schomburg. These two men corresponded and exchanged books with Wendell Phillips Dabney. He, Schomburg, and Woodson were all members of the American Negro Academy, an organization founded by Alexander Crummell, another bibliophile and African-American intellectual in 1897.

One of the greatest honors that I have received is to be called the “modern day Schomburg.” Schomburg was the greatest bibliophile and collector of his time. He was born in 1874 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a year after slavery had been abolished on the island. Looking back, we seem to share parallel lives in many ways. Schomburg, too, was told by his teachers that blacks were inferior and had no history. Both of us resolved to dedicate our lives to defending African people against charges of racial inferiority and acts of social oppression by collecting and preserving our history. Like Schomburg, I entrusted my cherished collection to a major institutional repository and, like him, I guide people in search of black history along their paths of truth.

A “race man” to the core, Schomburg channeled his race feeling by collecting books, pamphlets, prints, manuscripts, and other sources relating to the history of African people throughout the world. Although he had to support a family and was not a wealthy man, he traveled in Europe in 1924 to do research and collect more material.

Like most African-American collectors, Schomburg endured innumerable personal sacrifices to make his incredible collection a reality. One of his often-repeated quotes was that, “The American Negro must remake his path in order to make his future.” He also said that, “History must restore what slavery took away.”

In 1926, the Carnegie Corporation bought Schomburg’s collection of more that 10,000 items for $10,000 (approximately one fifth of its estimated value at that time) and placed it in the New York Public Library’s Harlem branch. A short time later, the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library was named for him. By this time, Schomburg was on a leave of absence to serve as the curator of the Fisk University Library where he established an excellent collection of rare black books. Many of the rare items that Schomburg purchased in the 1930s after his departure from Fish were placed on the library’s open shelves. In 1973, while I was lecturing at Fisk, the Head Librarian, Jessie Carney Smith, asked me to identify the rare items so that she could place them in the Fisk Special Collection Department.

In 1995, the 70th anniversary of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Center presented a year-long exhibition and a series of programs. I was honored when Howard Dodson, the director of the Schomburg Center, asked me to serve as co-chairmen of the event. Like most dedicated bibliophiles who acquire a vast amount of knowledge after years of collecting, Schomburg shared his knowledge through his writing. His own bibliography includes The Works of Placido (1905) and A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry (1916). A copy of the latter gem that I purchased in 1970 has a particular place in my heart: It bears an inscription from Schomburg to William Gable, the well-known American book man. Later, he sold the copy to A. Edward Newton, one of America’s leading bibliophiles of that era. This book, then, has been touched by the hands of three distinguished book men. It is a coincidence that thrills the heart and soul as it does the mind. This book also bears one of Schomburg’s bookplates, depicting the image of a kneeling slave with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” I had selected the same image for my collection long before I ever acquired one of Schomburg’s books. Was it coincidence or was it fate? 

My bibliophile connection with Schomburg completed the circle. Howard Dodson asked me to write a comment for the book jacket of Dr. Elinor Des Verney Sinette’ biography of Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector (1989). I was honored to have known as a friend every director of the Schomburg Research Center, beginning with Dr. Lawrence D. Reddick, who had replaced the great collector after his death. Jean Blackwell Hutson, Wendell Wray, and Howard Dodson followed him. To have been referred to as “the second Schomburg” is an honor to which I would never have aspired. Arthur Schomburg’s work lives on in place of the man: I only hope that I have been a worthy successor to him in my small part of the black book-collecting world.

A number of other black collectors appeared on the scene in New York City and its suburban areas who where also associated with Schomburg. The Reverend Charles Douglass Martin, James Edward Bruce (“Bruce Grit”), Edward T. Garrett, and Charles S. Seifert were known as being among the bibliophiles building great collections. These men with Schomburg , would fire the imagination of countless African-American speakers, writers and politicians, as well as the average person on the street.

Edward T. Garrett, born in 1905 in New York City, was a well-known etcher and engraver who began collecting as a young boy after his mother took him to the New York Public Library. A “race man” to the core, Garrett only collected books by black authors and once removed an essay by the Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Overture from a volume and had it rebound as a separate publication. Today, this book is a welcome addition to the rare-book shelves of the Blockson Collection. I bought it seven years ago from the University Place Bookshop in Greenwich Village.

An added attraction to this slender volume is Garrett’s bookplate that bears his image. He collected nearly fifteen hundred volumes over his lifetime, many of which bear this distinctive bookplate. The majority of his collection is housed in the Schomburg Collection. A true bibliophile, Garrett found time to write a Negro encyclopedia of some 4,000 entries and compiled a Negro bibliography of 3,380 citations, neither of which was ever published.

Along with Schomburg, Charles S. Seifert would become one of the profound influences on young John Henrik Clarke through his work with the Harlem YMCA History Club, which would later be renamed the Edward Blyden Society in honor of the late Pan-African intellectual. This institution would count among its participants such people as John G. Jackson, Willis N. Huggins, Kwame Nkrumah, and Joel A. Rogers.

I cannot resist mentioning a fascinating anecdote in the world of books. It is somewhat a coincidence that during the time Arthur Schomburg became the curator of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, Belle da Costa Greene was serving as curator of the collection of wealthy banker J. Pierpont Morgan in the same city.

I first became acquainted with Greene’s name in 1969. I had been invited as one of the honored guests of Edwin Wolfe to view an imposing exhibition entitled, “Negro History, 1553-1903,” at The Library Company of Philadelphia. In the course of our conversation that evening, Wolfe told me that one of the most guarded secrets among knowledgeable bibliophiles and collectors was the fact that Belle da Costa Greene was of African descent. She was towering figure in the rare-book world from the 1920s to the 1950s. Wolfe related what he knew of her:

“In all my years as an antiquarian bookman, I never met a woman like her. I met Belle as a young man, while I was working for my relative, Abraham S. Rosenbach. She was born in Virginia, a product of a broken marriage and grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where she was employed as a librarian at Princeton University. By 1909, she was the librarian for  J. P. Morgan, at twenty-six years old. She was an attractive, slim-waisted woman of bright yellow complexion, with a sensual, husky voice and green eyes.”

Wolfe added that Rosenbach told him that, after returning from dinner one night, a friend noticed that the sleeve of Bella’s dress was torn, revealing her skin beneath. Greene is reported to have said, “The nigger blood shows through, doesn’t it?” Wolfe concluded that Greene passed herself off as Portuguese.

Like Schomburg, she had a great wit and knowledge of rare books and documents that few people could match during their time. After J.P. Morgan’s death, she became the director of his library to which she had been fiercely devoted for forty years. Probably because of fear of exposure, Greene never associated herself with contemporary African-American bibliophiles and collectors such as Schomburg.

Before she died in 1950, Greene burned her personal letters and diaries. Fascinated by the respect and book knowledge that this mysterious woman possessed, I began collecting articles, catalogs, and other publications that she had written. It was largely because of the knowledge of Greene’s mixed African ancestry that I began collecting the works of other writers of African descent, such as Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Dumas, Robert Browning, Frederick Douglass, W. Adolph Roberts, and Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. People who knew of Frank Yerby, the author of the best-selling novel The Foxes of Harrow, were surprised to learn that he was of African descent. Even the text on the dust jacket failed to identify Yerby as an African American.

Special attention must be given to several other collectors of the 1940s and 1950s. Although their collections were small, nevertheless they were significant in helping to restore our history book by book. Alexander Gumby, who rarely missed a theater opening for nearly thirty years, donated over three hundred scrapbooks of clippings, playbills, and ephemera to Columbia University in 1950. Gumby was described by those who knew him as a colorful personality. He also developed a passion for rare and first-edition books. His friends called his second-floor Fifth Avenue apartment “Gumby’s Bookstore,” where many of the Harlem literati gathered.

One of Gumby’s friends of the period, the artist and writer Richard Bruce Nugent, told me when we were introduced in 1975, “Charles, you would have enjoyed talking to Gumby. Man, he shared the same passion for books as Schomburg. They spend hours together, talking about their collections.” Both Gumby and Nugent were friends of junior high school teacher Harold Jackman, an inveterate collector of books relating to black culture.

Jackman’s more lasting contribution to his race was a collector. When his friend, poet Countee Cullen, died in 1947, he established the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection, housed in a Harlem library today. A tall and handsome man, Jackman was the physical model for the writer and collector Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926) and appeared in his friend Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932).

Hubert Harrison was known throughout New York City and in various parts of the nation as a man of immense intellectual gifts. He was born in 1883 in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and was reputed to be a soapbox orator, an important spokesperson for the Harlem Renaissance, and one of the great intellectual lights of the period. Although he did not attend college, his quest for knowledge and love of books pertaining to black culture never waned. He was the person responsible for securing Marcus Garvey’s first speaking engagement before Bethel A.M.E. Church in Harlem. He also had a profound influence on Garvey’s Pan-African philosophy. Like so many other black collectors and lay-intellectuals, Harrison’s passing went largely unnoticed, although he was undoubtedly one of the great minds produced by Africans in the Diaspora.

I might also add that, in my time, few people who are now collecting books by and about people of African descent have ever heard of our dedicated black collectors. The Negroana collection of Ernest R. Alexander went to Fisk University. Bishop Benjamin Arnett’s collection was dispersed into the holdings of Wilberforce University. Henry Baker’s collection of over two thousand invention patents and certificates by African Americans was donated to Howard University, while the thousand-volume collection of Tucker A. Malone was bought for Hampton Institute by George Foster Peabody. Charles Bentley, an activist friend of both W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter during the Niagara Movement years, donated one hundred books to the Special Negro Collection of the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library in 1929. The vast collection completed by A.M.E. Zion Bishop William J. Walls is preserved at Livingstone College in North Carolina.

Reprinted (p.227-241), by kind permission of Charles L. Blockson, from: “Damn Rare”: the memoirs of an African-American bibliophile / by Charles L. Blockson. – Tracy, CA: Quantum Leap Publisher, Inc., 1998. – xviii, 334 p.

Source: Broward Library

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Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile

By Charles L. Blockson

The subtitle of the book: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile, is like a sign that warns to be prepared for the unexpected. The three hundred and fifty-two pages book is more than a memoir. It is an authoritative panoramic story of an African-American man growning up in America. Nearly every aspect of African-American life is covered that also include “the numbers,” and superstition. “. . . everybody played the numbers including some ministers. . . . The numbers racket was as popular in many communities as lotteries are today, and it was more profitable for black people.” Those who buy the book will also meet and come to know major personalities in his life: W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Lessing J. Rosenwald, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Alice Walker, and many other personalities known and unknown. The dynamics of Mr. Blockson’s story hinges on an uncommon look into an African-American bibliophile’s life—Quantum Leap Publisher, CA 1998

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Jessie Carney Smith

In 1964 Smith became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in library science from the University of Illinois. Beyond the confines of academia where she found her niche, she is widely known for her written collections that document the culture and achievements of African Americans and of Black people worldwide. Smith has lectured widely and served in a variety of international assignments.

After completing her doctorate at the University of Illinois, she joined Fisk University in 1965.

Born Jessie Carney on September 24, 1930, Smith grew up outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. She had two older siblings and a twin brother. Her parents, James and Versona (Bigelow) Carney, graduates of North Carolina A&T, ran James’s small business. The whole family would often help in the store. Smith’s maternal grandparents lived only yards from the Carney home. . . .

Smith has further plans for the library and her writing career. “I find this is a very exciting time to be in library and information sciences and to become involved in the constant changes that technology brings,” she told CBB. Given the low funding usually allocated to libraries, Smith admitted that she could have enjoyed her position much more if funds and been available to make Fisk’s library high-tech. Outside the library, Smith’s newest projects included a third volume of Notable Black American Women, set to be published in 2002. Answers

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William Cooper Nell

Nineteenth-century Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist

Selected Writings, 1832-1874

Edited by Constance Porter Uzelac and Dorothy Porter Wesley

William Cooper Nell—one of the most important, prolific, and understudied African-American activists in the struggle against slavery—has finally found his voice. This is due to the recent publication of William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings, 1832-1874 (Black Classic Press), the product of several decades of passionate and painstaking work by editors Constance Porter Uzelac and her late mother, Dorothy Porter Wesley, a renowned pioneer in African-American history and bibliography.

The volume reprints 519 Nell documents, telling his documentary tale from the beginning of his public career in the American antislavery movement until his death during Reconstruction.

A wide variety of documents appear in the edition, including speeches, editorials, and letters to and from other important figures such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, as well as more obscure persons. Thanks to the hard work of the editors, a lengthy introduction, a chronology of Nell’s life, illustrations, and an index enhance the usefulness of the volume. Furthermore, the editors have corrected numerous dating errors introduced into the documents by archivists of an earlier time. Having so many of Nell’s writings together in one place for the first time, and in such an easily-accessible format, should spur a good deal of scholarly work on his contributions to the cause of nineteenth-century reform. After reading the volume, it is hard not to take seriously Uzelac’s claim that “completion of this publication has been a labor of love” (xxix).—Roy E. Finkenbine, Professor of History & Director of the Black Abolitionist Archives, University of Detroit Mercy, co-editor, Back Abolitionist Papers, 1830-1865

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Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995)

Afro-American Librarian and Bibliophile: an Exhibition

By Constance Porter Uzelac and James A. Findlay


For the second year in a row, Broward County Library’s Bienes Center for the Literary Arts is proud to present an exhibition in celebration of Black History Month. This year’s display honors the memory of one the most prominent African-American librarians and bibliophiles of the twentieth century: Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995). It does so by showcasing sixty-nine books, pamphlets, post cards, photographs, drawings, ephemera, awards and memorabilia from her vast personal collection.1 Also included are a selection of books and art works by James A. Porter (1905-1970), her first husband, and a selection of books by Charles Harris Wesley (1891-1987), her second husband.

Dorothy Porter Wesley was born in Virginia in 1905, went to high school in Montclair, NJ, graduated in 1928 with an A.B. degree from Howard University, Washington, D.C., and in 1932, became the first African American woman to receive a Master of Library Science degree from Columbia University, New York City. For forty-three years, from 1930 to 1973, she was the curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Collection, and was almost single handedly responsible for building the library into a world-class research facility relating to the history and culture of people of African descent. She was a prolific author and bibliographer yet only a very small selection of her work is included in the exhibition. . . .  Broward Library

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 Notable American Women, Book III

Edited by Jessie Carney Smith

New York: Thomson Gale, 2003. 881p. photos. index.

This is the third in a series that began in 1992 of excellent biographical dictionaries of prominent historical and contemporary African American women. For each volume, women were eligible for inclusion if they met one or more of the following criteria: pioneer in a particular endeavor, important entrepreneur, leading businesswoman, literary or creative figure of stature, leader of social or human justice, major governmental or organizational official, or distinguished scholar or educator. In the second volume, in many cases women’s names surfaced from research published since the prior volume.

In the current volume, editor Carney Smith thanks those who published “biographical accounts of obscure women on the Internet so that more readers might know their work” (Introduction). As the number of notables has mushroomed from an original 500 in Book I to a total of 1100 in Books I through III, the need for specialized, cumulative indexing to all three volumes has grown, too. Wisely, Book III offers cumulative occupational, geographic, and subject indexes. With increased attention to the histories of states and regions (not to mention email requests from schoolchildren working on African American women’s history in their state), the geographic index is a particular boon. (Book I had no geographic index, and II’s only indexed the women in that volume.) Goliath

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The Negro in the United States: A Selected Bibliography

By Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995)

This selected bibliography (with brief annotations) on the Negro in the United States is based mainly on sources in the Library of Congress. Among the topics covered are the urban Negro, relations between the races, discriminatory practices in all areas, and efforts to obtain political and economic freedom, as well as the education and cultural history of the Negro, his religious life, the social conditions under which he lives, and his historical past. Included are works depicting the lives of outstanding Negroes—abolitionists, fugitive slaves, educators, civil rights leaders, scientists, journalists, religious leaders, artists, athletes, and literary figures.

The selection of many of the titles, especially in the fields of literature and history, was based on the frequency of requests for particular works in large library collections on the Negro, and on their inclusion in the numerous bibliographies and reading lists now being compiled for use in colleges. While some books written especially for children and young people are included, and some of the other publications cited are well adapted to their use.

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Constance Porter Uzelac, formerly a medical librarian, is the guardian and keeper of the numerous books, papers and art works that once belonged to her parents and is now devoting her life to organizing and managing the Dorothy Porter Wesley Research Center (incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation in 1995), an archive of items from the estates of her parents, James Amos and Dorothy Louis Burnett Porter, and step-father, Charles Harris Wesley. Her publications include William Cooper Nell: Nineteenth-century Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist; Selected Writings, 1832-1874. BlackPast

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Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995), a scholar-librarian and bibliographer was born in Warrenton, Virginia in 1905, to her father, Hayes Joseph Burnett, a physician, and her mother, Bertha Ball Burnett, a tennis champion.  After receiving her A.B., from Howard University in 1928, she became the first African American woman to complete her graduate studies at Columbia University receiving a Bachelors (1931) and a Masters (1932) of Science in Library Science.   Dorothy Bennett joined the library staff at Howard University in 1928, and on December 29, 1929 married James Amos Porter. In 1930 University President W. Mordecai Johnson appointed her to organize and administer a Library of Negro Life and History incorporating the 3,000 titles presented in 1914 by Jesse Moorland.

The library opened in 1933 as the Moorland Foundation.  In 1946 Howard University purchased the Arthur Spingarn Collection.  By the time Porter retired in 1973 the library, which was now called the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, had over 180,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts and other primary sources.  Over 43 years, Porter had successfully created a leading modern research library that served an international community of scholars. . . . Black Past

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Routes of Passage: Rethinking the African Diaspora, Volume 1, Part 2

By Ruth Simms Hamilton

Routes of Passage provides a conceptual, substantive, and empirical orientation to the study of African people worldwide. Routes of Passage addresses issues of geographical mobility and geosocial displacement; changing cultural, political, and economic relationships between Africa and its Diaspora; interdiaspora relations; political and economic agency and social mobilization, including cultural production and psychocultural transformation; existence in hostile and oppressive political and territorial space; and confronting interconnected relations of social inequality, especially class, gender, nationality, and race.

Ruth Simms Hamilton was a teacher and researcher at Michigan State University for 35 years, having won many awards for her work.

Ruth taught courses on international inequality and development, comparative race relations, international migration and diasporas, Third World urbanization and change, and sociological theory. She was Professor of Sociology and Urban Affairs, Director of the African Diaspora Research Project, and a core faculty member of the African Studies Center and Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Michigan State University. At the time of her death, in November 2003, Ruth was finalizing an 11 volume series on the African Diaspora, Routes of Passage. TIAA-CREF, a national financial services leader, created the Hamilton Research Scholarship in 2004, in honor of Hamilton’s work in minority and urban issues.

Ruth Simms Hamilton. Creating a Paradigm and Research Agenda for Comparative Studies of the Worldwide Dispersion of African People. Michigan State, 1990

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Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector: A Biography

 By Elinor Des Verney Sinnette

This book is a bibliophile’s dream! The life of Arthur A. Schomburg is wonderfully described as a biracial immigrant from the Caribbean who gets involved with radical politics in New York and goes on to become a primer collector of African and African American literature! This book also introduces the reader to other black bibliophiles during the Harlem Renaissance. Book lovers will delight in this biography!

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The first full biography of the pioneering black collector whose search for the hidden records of the black experience led to the development of a research collection which laid the foundation for the study of black history and culture.

Sinnette’s book began at the school of Library Science at Columbia University as a doctoral dissertation and shares the strengths and weaknesses of that genre. It is primarily an account of Schomburg’s life and career in New York City, especially his last three decades. Although Sinnette describes in considerable detail the efforts by Schomburg to collect materials on black life and letters, she does not delve very deeply into his motivation for such collecting, nor does she explain how he was able to afford his acquisitions. The chapters, although chronologically organized, jump back and forth in time and the author misses few opportunities to digress with short biographies of Schomburg’s friends and acquaintances. Both these characteristics make the book difficult to follow. Despite this problem, the biographical and bibliographical data contained in this work make it a useful resource for those wishing to know more about Schomburg and about black life and the literary renaissance in New York City in the first years of the 20th century.—D. W. Hoover Ball State University

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Black Bibliophiles and Collectors: Preservers of Black History

Edited by W. Paul Coates, Elinor Des Verney Sinnette, and Thomas C. Battle

The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (MSRC) Series was developed in conjunction with the Howard University Press in 1989 as part of the 75th Anniversary activities.  The first title, Black Bibliophiles and Collectors:  Preservers of Black History was published in 1990.  The series was designed to maximize the vast library, manuscript, archival and graphic resources of the MSRC in order to substantially impact upon Howard University’s contributions to the scholarly study and interpretation of the Black experience.  This would be achieved by developing a program of sponsored research, including interns and research fellows, and developing a publications program to exploit the vast and rich resources of the MSRC’s various collections.  Publications were intended to include reprints, conference proceedings, edited works and original research.

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The State of African Education (April 200)

Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7

Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.

Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.

Part 2 of 7  /  Part 3 of 7  / Part 4 of 7  / Part 5 of 7 / Part 6 of 7  /  Part 7 of 7

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Men We Love, Men We Hate  / Ways of Laughing  (Kalamu ya Salaam)

John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk  / The Slave Ship (Marcus Rediker)

Marcus Rediker is professor of maritime history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1987), The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), and Villains of All Nations (2005), books that explore seafaring, piracy, and the origins of globalization. In The Slave Ship, Rediker combines exhaustive research with an astute and highly readable synthesis of the material, balancing documentary snapshots with an ear for gripping narrative. Critics compare the impact of Rediker’s history, unique for its ship-deck perspective, to similarly compelling fictional accounts of slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage. Even scholars who have written on the subject defer to Rediker’s vast knowledge of the subject. Bottom line: The Slave Ship  is sure to become a classic of its subject.—

Bookmarks Magazine  

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 13 August 2010 




Home  Black Librarians Table  Education & History  Conversations    Marcus Bruce Christian  Sterling A. Brown

Related files:   Nestor Hernandez 1960- 2006   Scattered Treasures: Nestor Hernandez    State of HBCU Archives    Bibliophiles and Collectors  From HBCUs to BCUs   HBCUs & Black Educators 

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Black Educators Organize Flood Relief   Afterword    Ten Vital Principles for Black Education   Joyce King Commentary  The Dropout Challenge   Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era

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