The holdings in African-American history and literature span the Ransom Center's collecting areas, with particular strengths in rare books and periodicals, the performing arts, and literary manuscripts.
The Center's book collection includes Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), considered to be the first published book of poetry by an African-American woman. Wheatley (1753–1784), who was born in Senegal and sold into slavery as a young girl, came to Boston on a slave ship in the early 1760s. The Center also holds copies of her Memoir and Poems (1838) and Letters (1864), both published posthumously.
A 1791 edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), an autobiography written by Olaudah Equiano (ca. 1745–1797), is among the Center's holdings. Equiano was a former slave who lived in the West Indies, North America, and Britain before buying his freedom. The publication of his book added to British anti-slavery sentiment in the late eighteenth century, and the author himself was an active member of the abolitionist movement in Britain.
Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation
The Center's collections include a wide range of materials related to slavery, abolition, and emancipation. The manuscript holdings include an 1836 agreement for the sale of a female slave, written in French and addressed to the New Orleans notary Felix Grima.
Notable nineteenth-century editions of African-American writing include slave narratives by Moses Roper (ca. 1815–1891), Solomon Northup (1808–c. 1863), Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897), Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), and others. Moses Roper's A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery (1837) describes his experiences in the United States. Roper escaped from slavery and in 1835 traveled to England, where he attended school and began writing. The Center's also holds Northup's Twelve Years a Slave (1853), an 1861 edition of Jacobs's narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which she published in Boston under the name Linda Brent, and an 1885 edition of My Bondage and My Freedom, the second autobiography published by Frederick Douglass. Other Douglass materials include a bound copy of speeches Douglass and Robert Ingersoll, the noted orator, gave at a civil rights meeting held at Lincoln Hall, Washington, D.C., in October 1883.
Researchers might also be interested in the Center's 1831 edition of The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Prince (ca. 1788–1833) was born into slavery in Bermuda, then a British colony, and her memoir was one of the first of its kind to be published in Britain. The Center's book collection includes several other books published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that address issues related to slavery in the West Indies.
The Edward Tinker library includes books and manuscripts important to the study of Haitian, Latin American, Caribbean, and Louisiana history. Among these are materials related to the history of slavery and the anti-slavery movement in the United States and Britain.
The work of William Wells Brown (ca. 1814–1884), noted African-American abolitionist, orator, and author, is represented by an 1858 edition of The Escape, or, A Leap for Freedom, commonly cited as the first published play by an African-American writer.
Continuing the Literary Tradition
The Ransom Center holds an 1859 edition of Harriet Wilson's (1825–1900) novel Our Nig, or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black: in a Two-Story White House, North, Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even Here (1859), which is credited with being the first novel published in the United States by an African-American writer.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) materials include an undated manuscript draft of the short story "Ole Conju'in Joe," a small amount of correspondence from the 1890s, as well as early editions of several of Dunbar's published works. Especially notable are the editions of Poems of Cabin & Field (1889), Candle-lightin' Time (1901), and Li'l' Gal (1904) illustrated with photographs of rural, African-American domestic life taken by members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club. The Center also has a microfilm copy (7 reels) of the Dunbar papers held at the Ohio Historical Society and an inventory to the contents of the microfilm.
The Center's Charles Chesnutt (1858–1932) holdings include copies of the Atlantic Monthly magazines featuring the stories "The Goophered Grapevine" (1887), "Dave's Neckliss" (1899), and "The Wife of His Youth" (1898), as well as editions of The Conjure Woman (1899).
The Joel Chandler Harris (1845–1908) materials include six slim bound volumes of original manuscripts for Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), as well as a small amount of correspondence and a manuscript draft of his introduction to Bandanna Ballads (1899), a book of verses and illustrations by Howard Weeden. Though problematic in their idealization of the antebellum south and depiction of African Americans, Harris's Uncle Remus stories provide a record of the dialect and stories Harris heard from slaves when he was a young boy and offer a window into perceptions of African Americans in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Minstrelsy and the Performing Arts
Several of the Center's collections offer insight into the frequently racist depictions of African-American characters on the American stage and screen.
An extra-illustrated copy of Laurence Hutton's The Negro on the Stage (1891) in the Messmore Kendall collection has playbills, letters, clippings, and illustrations inserted in and around the book's original text, which was taken from an 1889 article originally published in Harper's.
The Theater Biography Collection collection includes the work of African American stage photographer William Edward Elcha who worked for Aime Dupont and Strand Studio before beginning his own business.
The Center has three collections related to nineteenth-century productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin: the George C. Howard and family collection, George C. Howard's collection of books and plays, and the Uncle Tom's Cabin collection.
The George C. Howard (1815–1887) and family collection of dramatizations of Uncle Tom's Cabin contains scripts from the nineteenth century, including the George L. Aiken and H. J. Conway versions of the play. The Aiken version is represented by several prompt books used by the Howards between 1852 and probably as late as the 1870s. Aiken also wrote a dramatization of Stowe's The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was produced in December 1853; the holograph manuscript is located here. Many of the scripts contain performance annotations. The Howard and family materials also include playbills, prints, and clippings relating to nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The theatre arts library at the Ransom Center contains approximately 200 published plays and books collected by George C. Howard, many with annotations by unidentified playwrights, actors, and stage managers, as well as a 1968 dissertation by William Jackson Kessler about the early productions of the Aiken-Howard versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The Uncle Tom's Cabin collection comprises photographs (1852–ca. 1900), programs and playbills (1852–ca. 1880), prints (1852–1855), clippings (ca. 1900–1945), posters, sheet music (ca. 1850s?), correspondence, published acting editions, a songster, and a framed collage relating to the performance history of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The bulk of the collection consists of playbills and programs documenting the earliest productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, notably the premiere of George C. Howard's 1852 acting version, and photographs of stage personalities associated with the play, in particular George L. Fox, Charles K. Fox, Cordelia Howard, and Lotta Crabtree.
The minstrel show collection contains 4,000 items from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, documenting the form of entertainment known as the minstrel show and, to a much lesser extent, other entertainments that used blackface makeup. Materials include photographs, prints, letters, sheet music, clippings, programs, playbills, scrapbook leaves, and a small number of tintypes for over 700 minstrel show companies and performers. Also included are photographs of motion picture actors and variety performers from the 1920s and 1930s who utilized blackface makeup in their routines, as well as female impersonators and banjoists. Researchers might also be interested the theatre arts library's books related to minstrelsy published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The musicians collection (1727–1981, bulk 1900–1940) features primarily visual representations of musicians and musical groups from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: classical composers, conductors, soloists, and ensembles; big bands and bandleaders; bandmasters; impresarios; vaudeville artists, minstrel show performers, and other variety acts; twentieth-century American musical theater composers; and post-1940 popular singers and musical groups, including country singers. African-American musicians are well represented, especially in materials from the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century. Notable examples include the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins.
The massive theater biography collection (the "Bio File," ca. 1750–1970, bulk 1820–1950) consists of materials relating to over 5,000 British and American dramatic and variety performers, including several African Americans. Although individuals are primarily represented by publicity material such as photographs, prints, playbills, programs, and posters, the collection also contains letters, legal documents, scrapbooks, paintings and drawings, sheet music, books and pamphlets, and other memorabilia. A smaller section includes playwrights, critics, managers, designers, and other production personnel.
The B. J. Simmons & Co. costume design records include two pages from The Sketch, a London-based popular magazine, with photo illustrations documenting a production of In Dahomey at the Shaftsbury Theatre in 1903, as well as a 1904 drawing of George Walker, an African-American vaudeville performer who appeared in the musical. In Dahomey was the first Broadway musical written and performed entirely by African Americans.
The Center's Christopher Morley materials include an unpublished manuscript titled A Wild Plaint (ca. 1909), which appears to be the diary of a suicidal young black man's final days in Chicago. A reader's report is also included. The manuscript is signed "Aubrey Gray" but was likely written by Fenton Johnson (1888–1958), an African-American poet, essayist, and editor from Chicago. Johnson founded several magazines in the early twentieth century to promote African-American writing, and his work was included in poetry anthologies compiled by James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps, among others.
The Center's manuscript collection includes a 1906 fundraising letter from Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), who at the time was principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, as well as early editions of many of his books. Washington wrote the preface for the Center's copy of Twenty-four Negro Melodies (1905), a set of piano scores arranged by the black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), who was best known for the cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (1898) and also collaborated with Paul Laurence Dunbar.
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance and its writers and artists are well represented in the Center's holdings. Claude McKay's correspondence in the William A. Bradley Agency collection documents the writing and revising of Home to Harlem (1928) as well as his work and efforts to publish subsequent novels and his travels in Europe and Africa. The Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection features correspondence, publicity materials, and/or manuscripts from Claude McKay (1889–1948), Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), Nella Larsen (1891–1963), Alain Locke (1885–1954), and Walter White (1893–1955). The Charles R. Larson papers include the scholar and educator's research materials for his work on Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer (1894–1967).
First editions of major novels of the Harlem Renaissance, including Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), Walter White's The Fire in the Flint (1924), and Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), can be accessed via the University's online catalog. Periodicals of note include two copies of the premiere, and only, issue of Fire!! (1926), the October 1926 special issue of Palms edited by Countee Cullen, Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life (1928), and Challenge: A Literary Quarterly (1934). For full information about the holdings of these and other periodicals visit the Ransom Center's online periodical database.
Works by artist and caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957) in both the Nickolas Muray and Adriana and Tom Williams collections document Harlem and major personages in New York during the period and are complemented by the Center's holding of over 700 Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) photographs, including images of Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson (1897–1993), and Paul Robeson (1898–1976).
The Nancy Cunard (1896–1965) collection includes extensive materials related to the compilation, publication, and reception of her 1934 book Negro: An Anthology, including contributions from Sterling Brown (1901–1989), Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), and Samuel Beckett (1906–1989). Cunard's collection also contains materials from her journalistic work on stories about the Scottsboro boys, colonialism, and racial inequality throughout the world. Cunard herself became a target of racists when she visited America with African-American jazz musician Henry Crowder (1890–1955). She received threatening hate mail that is preserved in her collection. The Center also owns a portion of Cunard's personal library including books by the contributors of Negro: An Anthology.
Stage and Screen
The Gone with the Wind (1939) materials in the David O. Selznick (1902–1965) collection include correspondence and clippings that reveal public sentiment regarding the film's depiction of African Americans, as well as efforts by African-American leaders to convince Selznick and others to eliminate from the film offensive language and scenes that appeared in the original book. The materials also include legal files, publicity stills, and other materials related to Hattie McDaniel, who received an Academy Award for her performance as "Mammy," and some of the other African-American actors who appeared in or auditioned for the film.
The Fred Fehl theater collection includes three black-and-white photographs of a production of Carmen Jones. The performers are not identified, and the photographs are undated. Carmen Jones (1943), a revision of the opera Carmen with an African-American cast, began as a Broadway musical and later became a film and a play.
From the post-World War II period, a collection of James Baldwin (1924–1987) manuscripts includes several versions of his novel Another Country (1962) and galley proofs for Going to Meet the Man (1965) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), as well as publicity materials in the Knopf archive relating to Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). Ralph Ellison's (1914–1994) correspondence (primarily from the 1940s) appears in the Sanora Babb papers, and the Center also holds the galley proofs of Invisible Man (1952).
The Willard Maas (1906–1971) collection includes limited correspondence with Richard Wright (1908–1960) around the time of the publication of Native Son (1940). The Charles R. Larson papers also contain Larson's research materials related to Wright.
The Alfred A. Knopf collection includes correspondence and publicity materials from Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965), Chester Himes (1909–1984), and John Oliver Killens (1916–1987). Lorraine Hansberry correspondence also appears in the Lillian Hellman papers, and the Joseph Abeles studio collection contains a 1955 Hansberry portrait.
Another item of note from this period is the first issue of All-Negro Comics (1947).
The papers of Ross Russell (1909–2000), writer on jazz and founder of Dial Records, contain books, periodicals, correspondence, documents, photographs, recordings, and the business files of Dial Records, famous for issuing some of the most important recordings of Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and other legendary Bebop musicians.
A wide variety of collections provide insight into living conditions of African Americans in the Unites States. The John E. Palmer (1891–1964) photography collection primarily comprises studio portraits and informal photographs taken by Palmer that document the everyday life and social activities of the African-American community in Galveston, Texas, from the 1890s through the 1960s, including formal portraits, weddings, funerals, meetings of fraternal organizations, and parades.
John L. Spivak's (1897–1981) research, manuscripts, reviews, and correspondence from his 1932 book Georgia Nigger, a fictionalized account of life in Georgia prisons, includes 144 photographs and negatives and primary materials from the prisons themselves.
John Howard Griffin's (1920–1980) collection includes correspondence, photocopied manuscripts, and clippings pertaining to his work Black Like Me (1961), the record of his controversial attempt to understand life as an African American. The Horace R. Cayton collection consists of materials related to the pioneering, African-American sociologist's 1963 autobiography, Long Old Road. Cayton chronicled the experiences of urban black communities in the northern United States.
The Civil Rights Movement
The African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is documented, in part, by the John Beecher (1904–1980) papers. Beecher's collection contains materials related to his family, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, his service on the U.S. Merchant Marine's first integrated ship, the S.S. Booker T. Washington, and his own work as a journalist and activist. Included are audio recordings of civil rights workers in McComb, Mississippi, and of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference in 1966 following Lurleen Wallace's victory in the Alabama democratic gubernatorial primary.
The Magnum Photos, Inc., photography collection offers a visual history of the movement, including images of the March on Washington and marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The collection also includes photographs of civil rights leaders and activists including Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. The New York Journal-American photo morgue also provides coverage of major events and personages of the civil rights movement.
The Center's materials include correspondence and published editions of work by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (b. 1934), an American writer, editor, critic, and teacher. Copies of three of the little magazines he was involved with in the late 1950s through early 1970s are also present: the literary magazines Yugen (co-edited with Hettie Cohen) and Kulchur and the newsletter The Floating Bear (co-edited with Diane DiPrima).
Dramatist Adrienne Kennedy's (b. 1932) papers include manuscripts and related materials for all of her plays, including her best known, Funnyhouse of a Negro, as well as for The Owl Answers, A Rat's Mass, An Evening with Dead Essex, Ohio State Murders, and her memoir People Who Led to My Plays, along with many unpublished and unproduced manuscripts. Kennedy's papers document her evolution from an aspiring writer to a successful playwright, with drafts of plays, short stories, memoirs, and novels, as well as film and television projects, and correspondence with Edward Albee, Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Gwendolyn Brooks, Ozzie Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Elizabeth Hardwick, James Earl Jones, Elia Kazan, Harold Pinter, Ishmael Reed, Jerome Robbins, Audrey Wood, and others.
The Limited Editions Club collection includes prints by eight African-American artists. Under the direction of Sidney Schiff, the Limited Editions Club produced fine, illustrated editions that included commissioned works from renowned artists such as Jacob Lawrence (Eight Passages suite of prints), Elizabeth Catlett (Margaret Walker's For My People), Loïs Mailou Jones (Léopold Sédar Senghor's Poems), Phoebe Beasley (Langston Hughes's Sunrise is Coming After While), Allan Rohan Crite (The Revelation of Saint John the Divine), John Biggers (Maya Angelou's Our Grandmothers), Betye Saar (Zora Neale Hurston's Bookmarks in the Pages of Life), and John Wilson (Richard Wright's Down by the Riverside). These editions were published between 1989 and 2001.
Muralist and educator John Thomas Biggers (1924–2001) is represented by a series of early career drawings and illustrations for J. Mason Brewer's book Aunt Dicy Tales (1955–1956) and a later portfolio of lithographs for Maya Angelou's Our Grandmothers (1994).
The Charles R. Larson collection of African, African-American, and Native-American literature includes books, periodicals, manuscripts, and correspondence related to Larson's years of study in these respective fields.
The Ransom Center actively collects published first editions by contemporary African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Rita Dove, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, ZZ Packer, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, Colson Whitehead, and John Edgar Wideman, among others.
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