African American Centenarian Voter in 1891

Clipping from Dorsey’s Colored Centenarians scrapbook, no source given.

A Centenarian at the Polls.

A November 5, 1891 clipping in William Henry Dorsey’s scrapbook reports that John Gibson, a resident of the Philadelphia’s Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, age 113 years, voted that week. “Mr. Gibson, who is known by the residents of the Home as “Father” Gibson, was taken to the poll in a carriage, and had to be lifted out to vote.”

William Henry Dorsey, the son of an escaped slave, was one of the most prolific scrapbook makers in the United States. He was born in 1837 in Philadelphia, where he made about 400 scrapbooks during the 1860s through about 1903, mostly about Black life and history, divided by subjects. In one small scrapbook, titled “Colored Centenarians,” he collected items beginning in the mid-1860s, about Black people who were over a hundred years old. John Gibson’s was the only achievement Dorsey commented on in the handwritten index he compiled for this scrapbook. Next to John Gibson’s name is the note “voter age 113.” He thought of it as an honor worth commemorating.

Index to Dorsey’s Colored Centenarians’ scrapbook hails John Gibson as a voter.

John Gibson appears in another article in the scrapbook, “Happily Over the Century Mark,” one of a set of patronizing interviews with elderly African Americans in the Home. There we learn that he was born free, though virtually enslaved as a child. He came from Maryland to Philadelphia in the early 1850s. Neither article mentions that the Pennsylvania Constitution had been amended in 1848, to say only white freemen could vote, so he would have been barred from voting until 1870, when the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution declared that the right to vote should not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.


William H. Dorsey, custodian of documents, American Negro Historical Society


“Happily Over the Century Mark” gives John Gibson’s age as 119. If his age seemed flexible, longevity gave the weight of seriousness to Gibson’s dedication to voting and marked the importance of Black full citizenship.

Do you have more to tell about John Gibson? Please chime in!

(“Colored Centenarians” is Scrapbook No. 45 in Cheney University’s Dorsey Scrapbook Collection.)

(The intrepid researcher Reginald Pitts responded to my asking if anyone had more to tell about John Gibson by really digging in. He writes: “A  little more info, if you will–this clipping would have appeared in the Philadelphia “Public Ledger”, the ancestor of the Philadelphia “Inquirer.” The neighboring Wilmington (Del.) “Delaware Gazette and State Journal” for November 12, 1891, page 6, reprints the article and cites the “Ledger” as its source. And old Father Gibson lived many more years at the “Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons” (also known as the “Stephen Smith Home”) at 4400 Belmont avenue (at Girard Avenue), finally being gathered to his ancestors at the ripe old age of 117 on February 18, 1895, according to his death certificate. His occupation was listed as “Gentleman,” which I thought was nice. He was buried at the old Olive Cemetery which was adjacent to the home; about ten years later, when Eden Cemetery was opened in the western suburbs, Father Gibson, along with every else at Olive, was reinterred out there, although his gravestone (if he had ever had one) was lost. Always happy to help!

And Reginald Pitts found him in the census: “in 1880–aged 105 and somewhat feeble, he’s living with his wife Hannah A. (a sprite of fifty-eight) in a home at 2922 Herman (now West Gordon) Street (in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly) (1880 Federal Census for the City and County of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Supervisor’s District 111, Enumerator’s District 602, Sheet 493 (Page 25) Lines 44-45).”

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.

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.

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!

Scrapbook talk DC May 23, 3:30

Writing with ScissorsWashington, DC was such productive rummaging ground for my research for Writing with Scissors. I am grateful that the Library of Congress saved the scrapbooks of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clara Barton, and Anna E. Dickinson, among others, and that Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Collection preserved some of William Dorsey’s that didn’t end up at Cheyney University, one of John Wesley Cromwell’s, and the extraordinary collection that Joseph W. H. Cathcart passed along to Cromwell. So glad to be heading speaking about these and other scrapbooks in DC at the Washington Area Group for Print Culture Studies, Friday May 23, 3:30, at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, 500 17th St. NW, Washington, DC, RCR Room, Main Atrium. (Yes, that’s the same address as the Corcoran Gallery — plan your afternoon accordingly!)


Dorsey’s 400 Black History Scrapbooks

William Henry Dorsey was a dedicated scrapbook maker beyond belief — around 400 scrapbooks from the 1860s to 1910s — not just the phenomenal “Colored Centenarians” book I wrote about in some detail in Writing with Scissors, but others on Philadelphia’s African American notables, black prize fighters, pictures of Africans, black education, Emancipation anniversary celebrations, black Odd Fellows — the list is vast. And yes, my hunch was confirmed: he did know about Robert M. Budd aka Back Number Budd, the pioneering black dealer in old newspapers in NYC. He corresponded with him, and he clipped an article on him I hadn’t seen before, from the Indiana Freeman.

William Dorsey's nephew, Dorsey Seville, worked at the post office, and passed along undeliverable papers for his uncle to clip.

William Dorsey’s nephew, Dorsey Seville, worked at the post office, and passed along undeliverable papers for his uncle to clip.

Sabra Statham, Matt Isham, Mike Furlough and others at Penn State’s “People’s Contest” project for digitizing otherwise hidden resources from the years around the Civil War are hoping to digitize them. Keith Bingham of Cheyney University has sent them over to be assessed. I hadn’t seen much of the actual collection before, but mainly the microfilm. The pallet full of boxes is an impressive sight! And the contents are dazzling — so many forgotten bits and pieces of African American history, clipped from newspapers — sometimes from black newspapers that have no documented copies still existing. Not to mention more information on how Dorsey got the newspapers he clipped, and how his friends and colleagues used them.

Here’s a video of my talk, setting William Henry Dorsey’s scrapbook in the context of other black scrapbook makers.

What Was it about Philadelphia? African American Scrapbooks at Penn State U – Talk Jan. 30

Penn State University is hoping to help Cheyney University digitize some of the amazing collection of nearly 400 scrapbooks that William Henry Dorsey created from the 1860s to the turn of the century. William Dorsey knew other Philadelphia African American scrapbook makers as well. I’m honored to be heading to University Park, PA next week to speak about the scrapbooks they spent so much time on, and why they made them. And I’ll have a day in the library to revisit the scrapbooks — who knows what else I’ll find! On my wish list: more informatiDorsey scrapbooks at PSUon on Dorsey’s friend Joseph W.H. Cathcart, a Philadelphia janitor who made about 150 huge scrapbooks. And is it possible he knew Amos Webber?   What about Frank Webb?   Learn a bit more about Dorsey from a short article I wrote about his scrapbooks for The Root last year.

Sabra Statham has started a blog on the Dorsey digitization project. 

Of course Roger Lane mined Dorsey’s scrapbooks for his fine comprehensive history of 19th century black Philadelphia, William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours.

Article on black scrapbooks on The Root

Why would a black janitor in Philadelphia in the 1870s make 150 scrapbooks? Why would

William Henry Dorsey

William Henry Dorsey

his friend, a black collector and amateur historian, make nearly 400? You may think of scrapbooks as a place to treasure up family pictures, but a century ago, African Americans created histories with them, shared community knowledge, and taught one another to read the white press critically.

For National Scrapbooking Day (May 4), it’s time to learn about how African American men and women saved and shared history in their scrapbooks not long after emancipation. My article in The Root explores the work of one prodigious scrapbook maker in Philadelphia, whose collection aided WEB Du Bois. (And of course there’s lots more about William Henry Dorsey in Writing with Scissors.)