African American Scrapbooks Now

A recent New York Times article on contemporary African American scrapbook makers reports on what happened when Tazhiana Gordon featured her pages on attending Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. She shows her pages on Instagram, where a scrapbooking community shares their work. But when she placed her activism and Blackness at the center of her work, some of her white followers dropped her.

Azzari Jarrett has designed Black Lives Matter scrapbook stickers and stamps.

The many African American scrapbook makers of the 19th and 20th century would have been right there with Tazhiana Gordon in documenting the BLM movement, and paying attention to responses to the police killing of a black man. Even those who saved memorabilia about their own lives – programs from concerts they attended, family achievements – also clipped and pasted newspaper items about lynchings, government collusion in lynchings, and the suppression of the Black vote. Their private lives were not separate from what was happening to the local and national Black community.

African Americans of the past have known how essential it was for them to archive their own activities. We would not know anything about Alice Dunbar Nelson’s work for women’s suffrage if she hadn’t kept a thorough scrapbook of her 1915 campaign work around Pennsylvania.

Pages from Alice Dunbar’s 1915 scrapbook documenting her women’s suffrage work
Inside front cover of one of L.S. Alexander Gumby’s scrapbooks, with his personal bookplate.

Nineteenth and twentieth century African American scrapbook makers might have been more puzzled to see people ornamenting the pages with purchased stickers, and by the online community that shares ideas for page layouts and designs. Their own sharing was within the Black community, to offer one another the histories they’d compiled. I wonder what William Henry Dorsey, son of an escaped slave, with his 400 scrapbooks spanning over 4 decades, or Shirley Graham DuBois and her mother, or Joseph W.H. Cathcart, a janitor, whose 150+ massive scrapbooks attracted reporters from the white press to write about him, as “the Great Scrap Book Maker,” would have thought of today’s Black scrapbook crafters? All (with the exception of L.S. Alexander Gumby, who loved frames and pockets) might have been puzzled by the attention to the visual aesthetics of scrapbook making. But they surely would have applauded their demands for recognition and paid work within a white controlled industry.

March 29 2020 scrapbook talk in Clifton, NJ

Historic house museums appeal to our desires to imagine ourselves into different lives, lived in different surroundings. It’s always complicated – in extreme cases, when plantation recreations invite us to enjoy the spoils of slaveholders, and ignore the slave quarters, for example.

Scrapbook House, Strong Museum collection

Schoolroom in scrapbook house, Strong Museum collection

Scrapbook house parlor, including black servant, Strong Museum collection

But wandering through someone else’s house is intriguing. Nineteenth century children played with the desire to try out different homes in their house scrapbooks, where they created rooms and scenarios in them from catalog and magazine pictures.

On Sunday, March 29, 1 pm, you can visit a 19th century farmhouse and hear about historic scrapbooks. And if you have old scrapbooks in your family, bring them. I’ll bring some from my collection, too – and of course, lots of great pictures of how our ancestors used their newspaper clipping scrapbooks to save women’s history, black history, and more.

I’m looking forward to the first of my New Jersey Council for the Humanities scrapbook presentations, Sunday, March 29, 1 pm, at Hamilton House, Clifton, NJ 971 Valley Road, Clifton, NJ 07013.

https://www.hamiltonhousemuseum.org/events-1

Hey, New Jersey! Want to Hear about Scrapbooks?

Whenever I give talks about scrapbooks in public libraries and historical societies, people walk in thinking scrapbooks are trivial, and leave astonished at what a rich history they speak for — that so many people in the 19th century made them as “unwritten histories,” and they were our ancestors way of coping with too much information. I’m delighted that the New Jersey Council for the Humanities has included my Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks presentation in their great catalog of Public Scholars events. Nonprofit organizations in NJ can sign up to book the talk here.

I love adding local material and inviting people to look again at scrapbooks in their families and communities. NJ author and editor Jeannette Leonard Gilder kept scrapbooks and wrote about her NJ life in her memoir, The Tom-Boy at Work. Isn’t it time for your historical society to bring out its scrapbooks?

Eligible groups include libraries, historical societies, schools, universities and more. My talks are both women’s suffrage related, so qualify for organizations to go over the usual NJ Council on the Humanities limit of two talks/year. (Jeannette Gilder was actually an anti-suffragist. Yikes!)

From The Tom-Boy at Work

The full catalog of speakers is here.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson in my Washington Post article – based on her scrapbooks

alice dunbar nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, in the photo taken around 1900, which appeared in the many newspaper articles about her suffrage work in 1915.

My article in today’s Washington Post “Made by History” section, “How a new exhibit corrects our skewed understanding of women’s suffrage: Addressing racism in the suffrage movement” tells about the fabulous exhibit, “Votes for Women,” opening today at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This exhibit avoids the narrow “Seneca Falls to 1920” framing of women’s struggles for the vote to include the activism of African American churchwomen, clubwomen, and educators, and later civil rights activists, and Native Americans and Puerto Ricans, whose timeline for getting the vote was very different.

My article focused on Alice Dunbar-Nelson, an African American writer, speaker, teacher, and all around activist, whose portrait is in the exhibit. Her story, not in the exhibit, is fascinating. I learned about her 1915 campaign tour for suffrage through her scrapbook – really the only record there is of this work. The news articles she collected about her speeches were in local papers, not digitized or even microfilmed. She was bold enough to think that evidence of her work should be saved, and savvy enough to realize that if she didn’t do it, no one else would. Her scrapbook is thus almost the only trace we have of the very particular arguments for suffrage she addressed to the black community.

If the Washington Post article whets your appetite, you can read more about Alice

1917 black women organizing for vote

Photo of a gathering of black suffrage activist, 1917. Anyone know who is who?

Dunbar-Nelson’s suffrage work in my 2016 article, “Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work: The View from Her Scrapbook” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 33: 2; 310-335. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll need access to J-Stor or ProjectMuse to get to it.

The exhibit catalog has an eye-opening essay by Martha S. Jones – essential reading on African American suffrage involvement: “The Politics of Black Womanhood, 1848-2008.”

I must get to DC!

 

Speaking at Oberlin March 14 – and a note on an advantage of 19th century media

I’m looking forward to jumping into Oberlin’s special collections, since their alumnae/i

Mary Church Terrell, Oberlin alumna and scrapbook maker

were the leading lights of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. They may have inherited the remains of the newspapers that Angelina and Sarah Grimke and Theodore Weld used in writing American Slavery As It Is  — an extraordinary use of Southern newspapers to argue against slavery. I’ll be speaking on Hidden Histories: African American and Women’s Rights Scrapbooks on Thursday afternoon, March 13. And I’m looking forward to a faculty workshop about archives on Friday, where I hope we’ll have a chance to discuss Elizabeth Alexander’s extraordinary essay, “My Grandmother’s Hair,” from her collection Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews. It engages the intimacy and violence of the archive.

So what was an advantage did 19th century media had over ours? Their users didn’t have to worry about lost passwords. I finally made my way back to this blog! Sorry for not posting here more often recently.

I spoke at the Mexico City’s immense Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in the Seminario de Bibliología, last month and heard about some interesting filmmakers’ scrapbooks there from book history scholars who hadn’t thought about scrapbooks. I also learned that Spanish has a special word for a library of periodicals: hemeroteca.

I’ll be digging in the archives on fellowship at Yale University all through April (on a nonscrapbook project) but hope to post more about related findings.

speaking June 29, Garrison NY – Hidden Life of Suffrage Scrapbooks

Last minute announcement – Humanities NY and the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison, NY have asked me to fill in tonight, June 29, 6:30 in the library’s suffrage series. Come hear my talk Scrapbooks and the Hidden Life of Suffrage:

Anti-suffragists’ scrapbooks reveal some of their tricks.

How did suffragists manage all the different arguments and strands of information to create a powerful and effective movement that spanned decades? They used scrapbooks: a form of distributed, decentralized information storage and history writing. In their scrapbooks, suffragists collected the history of their movement, strategized about public speaking, and explained their work to their families. Scrapbooks played a key role in transmitting tactics and stories. Susan B. Anthony fought to place her 13 volume scrapbook in the Library of Congress. Alice Dunbar Nelson clipping collection reveal her shaping her specifically African American vision of what women’s suffrage would do for the black community. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s scrapbook became a multi-generation collaboration. Lillie Devereux Blake used her clippings in her speeches against domestic violence, and taught her readers how to use scrapbooks.
In the 1910s, as the suffrage movement sped toward ratification, it became increasingly professionalized and ran its own clipping services. Scrapbooks supported its growing public relations campaigns. Anti-suffragists used the same materials, though the scrapbook of a dedicated anti-suffragist PR woman shows her busy inventing facts to get her stories noticed.
These scrapbooks open a window into the lives of the thousands of ordinary women who became suffragists. They let us see how these earlier generations of campaigners and supporters used the press, while they reveal an intimate side of well known suffragists.

Scrapbooks on TV Sunday, May 14

Here’s how to take a break from grading: Run out to the cab where Jennifer Mayerle from CBS Sunday Morning is riding over to borrow one of my 19th century scrapbooks. She’ll use it as a prop in the studio on Sunday, May 14, when they (almost certainly) will air the segment on scrapbooks that I taped with them.

From L.S. Alexander Gumby’s scrapbooks.

We met back in August at Butler Library at Columbia University and talked about the hundred or so scrapbooks of L.S. Alexander Gumby, the great gay scrapbooker of the Harlem Renaissance, which are there, though I didn’t get to explicate them on camera. We also talked about others, not at Columbia —  William Dorsey’s over 400; the scrapbook Mark Twain invented, suffrage scrapbooks like Elizabeth Boynton Harbert’s, and one pasted into a book of sermons. Jennifer asked great questions, and I’m very eager to see what made it into the show!

And why did it take so long to air? Oddly enough, they’ve been covering more about politics this year.

Speaking in Wilmington, DE – University of Delaware April 27

Thrilled to be heading to the University of Delaware to speak on African American scrapbooks.

April 27 talk

I’m heading there for a meeting of the 19th century women writers study group, and squeezing on a talk about African American scrapbooks along the way. (Listen for a mention of a slaveholding Gorsuch — an ancestor of the new Supreme Court judge? I wouldn’t be surprised.)

This time we’re discussing Alice Dunbar Nelson’s work (okay, the LONG 19th century). I wrote about a fascinating scrapbook Dunbar-Nelson made about her suffrage work in 1915, and will be talking about that for the study group on Saturday, too. (I wrote about it in Writing with Scissors, and again in more detail in Legacy’s special issue on Alice Dunbar Nelson. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/645636) She was a woman of remarkable energy, commitment, and political organizing interests.

Lockport ahead: Speaking at the History Center of Niagara, Thurs May 19

So excited to be giving my first talk on scrapbooks for the Public Scholars in the Humanities program of the New York State Council for the Humanities, which has 31 scholars giving talks around the state. I have been completely wowed by those I met at our workshops last summer — Richard Heyl de Ortiz, who speaks about the foster care system, Sally Roesch Wagner, who speaks on the 19c women’s rights movement, and the cartoonist Robert Sikoryak who graciously shlepped to my university in Jersey City to give a brilliant presentation on the history of cartoons/graphic novels, and two dozen more. Just looking at the list of speakers again is inspiring. If you’re in NY State, your organization can invite one! Or more!

scrapbook page with calling and trade cardsTomorrow I head upstate to speak about scrapbooks at the History Center of Niagara, hard by the Erie Canal, with stops in Glen Falls along the way. I hope people respond to the invitation to bring their scrapbooks (50 years old or more — the scrapbooks, not the people). I’ll bring some of mine, too. And yes, I’ll talk about how people without much power — African Americans, women’s rights advocates — used scrapbooks to speak back to the media.

Thursday, May 19, 7 pm. Niagara County Historical Society215 Niagara Street, Lockport, NY 14094. Looking forward to seeing you!

 

Ink and Electricity: Speaking at Monmouth University Thursday Nov. 12

Vertical filing cabinet, c. 1890, from the American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/lhrt/popularresources/lhrtnewsletters/spring2011

Vertical filing cabinet, c. 1890, from the American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/lhrt/popularresources/lhrtnewsletters/spring2011

Monmouth’s great title for their series on print culture, Ink and Electricity, is a reminder of how our perceptions of media are shaped by the technology of the moment. For 19th century scrapbook makers, scrapbooks were a new technology — as were the 1890s file folders and vertical files, that eventually displaced a swath of newspaper clipping scrapbook making. I’ll be speaking on how 19th century activists repurposed media in their scrapbooks. 6-7:30, Wilson Hall, Room 104. Arrive early for refreshments. Thanks to Kristin Bluemel for arranging this.