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.

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 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.

Back Number Budd talk Feb. 18, 1 pm, Astoria, Queens – note corrected time

Back Number Budd

Back Number Budd

If you didn’t have a scrapbook and didn’t have room for piles of newspapers in your house, how else could you find old news items? You could visit a form of offsite storage, flourishing first in a basement in midtown Manhattan, and then in an old horsecar barn in Astoria, Queens.

In the 1870s, an African American man known as Back Number Budd began sorting and organizing back issues of newspapers for sale to researchers, lawyers, and browsers. In a time before library newspaper collections or indexes, his business allowed his clients to find long lost information. Especially because he was black, buyers were suspicious of the high prices he charged for his work of sorting and saving old newspapers elsewhere considered trash. The story of his work offers a view into forgotten moments in African

Astoria Map

1891 Astoria Map

American history.

Fire destroyed Robert Budd’s business, but competition from the New York Public Library, which started saving more newspapers, and clipping services, which came into use in the 1890s, also displaced it.

            I’m excited to be speaking about Back Number Budd on Feb. 18, 1 pm at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, not far from where Budd had has warehouse, in Ravenswood, Astoria, Long Island City.

I already had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting some of his descendents in Massachusetts, and hope that someone in Astoria will have a lead on a photo of his business – or have other stories to share.

Thanks to the Public Scholars in the Humanities, Humanities New York, for sponsoring this!

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!

 

Frederick Douglass in old and new media

Google is using Frederick Douglass’s image for one of their doodles, or special logos of

Frederick Douglass Google Doodle.

Frederick Douglass Google Doodle.

the day, for the first day of Black History Month. They probably don’t know that he participated in the 19th century’s mode of organizing information. Yes, Frederick Douglass douglass scrapbook pagemade scrapbooks. You can read some online at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Collection. And one linked here, pasted into a Bureau of Indian Affairs report. (Like many scrapbook makers, he repurposed other books for his scrapbooks. 

 

Ink & Electricity lecture Thursday Nov. 12 at Monmouth

Poster InkElectricity Garvey 2015-page-001Monmouth used the cover of the odd crowd-sourced anthology, Heart Throbs: The Old Scrapbook. The editor asked newspaper readers to send in their favorite poems, etc., with the idea that they were tucked away inside scrapbooks. The white-haired scrapbook

Girl stores up scrapbook wisdom: Youth's Companion 1906.

Girl stores up scrapbook wisdom: Youth’s Companion 1906.

user is a figure of wisdom, while  scrapbook makers are usually shown as young people, storing up wisdom to use later. The talk is Thursday, Nov. 12.

 

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.

I started to read Jada F. Smith’s terrific op ed in the New York Times, “Don’t Mess With

Jada Smith's mother's scrapbook, with handwritten correction.

Jada Smith’s mother’s scrapbook, with handwritten correction.

Auntie Jean,” about her aunt standing up to oppressive segregationists in Georgia in the 1960s, and her examination of family history. What a surprise to find Jada Smith discovering her mother’s scrapbook, and in it her mother speaking back to the white press — in pink ink, no less. It’s a striking continuation of the tradition of African American scrapbook makers in the nineteenth century, handwriting their corrections on the articles clipped from the white press that they saved in their scrapbooks. John Wesley Cromwell’s scrapbook from the 1890s is a great example of this. And even in the 1960s, an annotated scrapbook corrects what Smith calls the “bland newspaperese” that was content with the white point of view. Her mother’s scrapbook spoke back to the white press within her family, keeping alive a family tradition of standing up and speaking back, in the face of gunfire. Read it!