DOROTHY [LOUISE BURNETT] Porter Wesley 1905-1995

1905 -1995

Born on May 25, 1905, in Warrenton, Virginia, the first of four children of Dr. and Mrs. Hayes J. Burnett, Dorothy Burnett received her early education in Montclair, New Jersey. After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in Minor Normal School in Washington, D.C., in 1923. In 1926, she transferred to Howard University and began work as a student assistant in the Founders Library. She graduated from Howard in 1928 with an A.B. and a resolve to continue her education to become a librarian. After working at the Howard University Library as a cataloger, Burnett enrolled in the Columbia University School of Library Science and in 1931 received a B.L.S. She received a scholarship to attend graduate school at Columbia from the Julius Rosenwald Fund and was awarded an M.L.S. in 1932, becoming the first African-American woman to do so.

Dorothy Porter Wesley, librarian, bibliographer, scholar, historian and archivist, was for 43 years (1930-1973) the curator of the Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Under her guidance a small special collection grew into a world-renowned research library. Today, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center is considered by many to be one of the world’s most comprehensive repositories of information on the history and culture of people of African descent.

Dorothy Porter Wesley joined the staff at Howard University Library in 1928. In 1930, she was appointed librarian in charge of the Negro Collection. It was during the early years of her career that the passion and commitment to preserving and sharing the legacy of African American history and scholarship began. The nucleus of the special collection was the Jesse E. Moorland donation of 3,000 items on the Negro and slavery and a collection of Lewis Tappan’s books.

Her zeal for uncovering materials relating to Afro-American history earned her the name of “Shopping Bag Lady.” She would personally search in attics, basements, closets and boxes for materials that, to the untrained eye, were often thought of as trash. Her most notable acquisition during her tenure at Howard was the purchase of the Arthur B. Spingarn Collection in 1946, an imposing assemblage of Negro authors that totaled 5,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts and sheet music. As a way of honoring that important acquisition, the library was renamed the Moorland-Spingarn Collection.

Dorothy Porter Wesley’s philosophy toward books was reflected in the way she nurtured and protected the collection. She once stated that: “All of this—our painters, musicians, athletes—is our background, what they’ve done all goes to make up our history . . .”

Mrs. Porter Wesley authored numerous books, articles and book reviews, but she is best know for the numerous bibliographies she compiled. She was also active in numerous professional organizations, including the Bibliographical Society of America, the Society of American Archivists, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the African Studies Association, and she was a consultant to the National Library of Lagos, Nigeria, 1962-64.

After her retirement, she continued to receive many accolades and laurels. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center dedicated the Dorothy B. Porter Room in 1973, which now houses the Howard University Museum. In 1989, The Dorothy Porter Wesley Lecture Series was initiated by Moorland-Spingarn. She also spent a year as Visiting Research Scholar at the DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, Harvard University, and was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania (1971), Syracuse University, New York (1989), and Radcliffe College (1990).

Dorothy Porter Wesley had two husbands, Mr. James A. Porter, an internationally know painter and art historian to whom she was married for 41 years, and Dr. Charles H. Wesley, a noted historian, author and educator. From the first union she was blessed with a daughter, Constance Porter Uzelac.



James A. Porter was an African American educator, lecturer, painter, administrator, critic and advisor. He graduated from Howard University with honors in 1927 with a Bachelors degree in Art. He was appointed instructor of art at Howard University in 1927. In 1929, he was awarded the Arthur Schomburg Portrait Prize for his painting Woman Holding a Jug (oil on canvas, Fisk University, Carol Van Vechten Gallery of Art). In 1933, the painting was also in the Harmon Foundation Exhibition of Negro Artists. He received the Certificat de Presence from the Institute of Art and Archeology, University of Paris in August 1935. In 1937, he received a Masters of Art in Art History from New York University. In 1953, he was appointed Head of the Department of Art and Director of the Art Gallery at Howard University. In March of 1965, he was named one of America’s outstanding men of the arts along with 26 other teachers who also received the first National Gallery of Art Medal and Honorarium for Distinguished Achievement in Art Education.

His classic book and standard reference work, Modern Negro Art [exhibit #18] proved to be one of the most informative sources to date on the creativity of the American Negro artist.



Charles H. Wesley was a noted African American historian, educator and author. He was the fourth African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. In 1913, while a student at Yale University, he became a member of the Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and from 1931-40 he served as national General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. An ordained minister, Wesley’s distinguished career included 40 years of leadership with the African Methodist Episcopal Church; he was President of Wilberforce University, Ohio, from 1942-1947, and served as the President of Central State College, Ohio, until his retirement in 1965. He was Executive Director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from 1965-1972, and later became its Executive Director Emeritus. In 1976, he served as Director of the Afro-American Historical & Cultural Museum, Philadelphia. He was the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930/31; the Scottish Rite Gold Medal Award in 1957; and the Armistad Award in 1972. He authored numerous books including the History of Alpha Phi Alpha [exhibit #20]; Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom [exhibit #21]; The History of Sigma Pi Phi; The Story of the Negro Retold; The History of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Ohio [exhibit #22]; The Negro in Our History; and the International Library of Negro Life and History.

Back to Table of Contents

Back to Exhibitions