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.

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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 Varietati Native, 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 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 2,679miscellaneous items. The catalog has become a collector’s item. I purchased my copy in 1963 from a bookdealer 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, 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.”

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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, Robert Campbell, 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 Muhammed, 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