Black Archives, Not Archives of Blackness: On Laura Helton’s “Scattered and Fugitive Things”

By Dorothy BerryApril 22, 2024

Black Archives, Not Archives of Blackness: On Laura Helton’s “Scattered and Fugitive Things”

Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History by Laura E. Helton

ARTURO SCHOMBERG pretending that a rare abolitionist pamphlet is of no interest, only to sneak back later and purchase it, sniping a fellow bibliophile. L. S. Alexander Gumby in a floral dressing gown, hosting an interracial queer salon and showing off a multivolume collection of Black ephemera. Virginia Y. Lee relocating a collection of books about Black history to a secret basement archive, away from eyes scanning the public library for anything countering the white-supremacist status quo. Dorothy Porter exploding the two available subject headings the Dewey Decimal System approved to describe African Americans into hundreds of subdivisions. Vivian G. Harsh overseeing an active public library reading room, hosting community reading groups that learn about the Haitian Revolution and take field trips to Sojourner Truth’s gravesite. L. D. Reddick soliciting correspondence from Black soldiers serving abroad in World War II to develop a collection of military history.

In her new book Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History, Laura E. Helton lays out a clear vision of Black public bibliophilia in the first half of the 20th century. Through the careers of these six figures—Schomburg, Gumby, Lee, Porter, Harsh, and Reddick—she chronicles the relationships and community organizations that shaped the foundations of Black intellectual life in the 20th-century United States. At a time when the philosophical concept of “the archive” has become so potent for scholars, the discourse can sometimes sidestep what Michelle Caswell has termed “actually existing archives.” In this context, Scattered and Fugitive Things is a necessary restorative. The figures in this book, both notable and hidden, spent their entire lives working institutionally to build fortresses of Black history and possibility, materially reframing a historical record designed to ignore Black existence.

Scattered and Fugitive Things examines a range of repositories imagined by and for Black communities. These are Black archives, not simply archives of blackness. While this may seem a distinction without difference, it is key to understanding the motivations of these collectors and categorizers. Helton defines her quarry in opposition to these “archives of blackness”—documentary evidence of Black life that exists in droves at institutions that display little interest in Black patrons or staffing. These collections thrive on rarity for rarity’s sake, preserving material conditions by allowing access only to vetted researchers, and basing that vetting process on professional networks and institutional affiliations. The combination of the traditional devaluation of Black history with the contemporary commitment to diversity has raised the profile of Black collections, often to the point where only the most well-endowed universities and museums can begin to contemplate bidding. This cycle was foreseen by Schomburg, was stifling to Porter, and continues to affect the market today: funds are often available to bring in notable acquisitions, but at the cost of failing to serve particular audiences. Large-scale digital projects at libraries and archives are funded with an aim to increase access to marginalized histories, but once the funding is there, the projects are run as if content-agnostic: archives of blackness clearly have value but can be completely divorced from the lives of actual Black people.

In Helton’s view, Black archives, as opposed to “archives of blackness,” exist in relationship not only to “actually existing archives” but also to actually existing people. The “for” part of the formulation “by and for Black communities” is central. These collections exist to be explored, countering the perception of archives as “places that regulate access to documents and from which information is extracted.” Themselves representing a heterogeneous cross section of Black society, the collectors in this book envisioned the creation of systems of knowledge in which Black people were active participants. Foreseeing a future market in which collecting institutions would outbid each other to acquire Black materials, whether a pristine copy of Black abolitionist David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) or a dingy copy of a flier for a Black Power meetup, the collectors in Scattered and Fugitive Things pursued their collecting careers with a focus not primarily on acquisition but on access.

The figures featured in Helton’s book are more or less well known in proportion to one’s relation to Black archives. Schomburg is the name most likely to ring a bell, while Virginia Lee is somewhat more obscure (save for Roanoke locals), but each figure is presented here in new depth, and in relation to each other and to a wider world of Black inquiry. Schomburg’s collection had a long life straddling the public-private divide. Though he was a collector who could be as excited by a rare find as any other, he opened his home as a sort of private reading room. During the the 1910s and ’20s, he documented his holdings, passing inventories and catalogs around to other autodidactic Black collectors, thus working to fill in the gaps that seemed most important to him.

By starting with Schomburg, Helton lays a familiar groundwork while also using his story, and those of the other five figures, to describe more broadly the identities and intersections of various Black archives. Schomburg, a private collector whose goal was to help “the Negro di[g] up his past,” eventually sold his collection to the New York Public Library. Gumby was a private collector as well, but with a deep focus on ephemera and an eye towards queering the Black archive; though he assembled multiple volumes of delicate scrapbooks on Black history and culture, he was also assertively interracial in building his intellectual community. Both collectors were committed to making their Black archives accessible to the public, with Schomburg publishing booklists that established Black canons and Gumby dedicated to mastering “the art of making scrapbooks” (he called his Harlem apartment the “Gumby Book Studio”).

Lee, Harsh, and Reddick were all public librarians, serving Black publics in entirely different contexts. Lee’s work to serve her community in segregated Virginia did not include purchasing rare books or hosting bohemian salons. Her small collection of mainstream books about Black history served as a lifeline to her patrons, and Helton presents it as emblematic of the work done across the South by a host of anonymous Black librarians. The institutions served by Harsh and Reddick exist in entirely separate worlds from Lee’s: Harsh helmed a public library in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood that hosted the likes of Langston Hughes and Katherine Dunham, while Reddick took up leadership of the Schomburg Collection at the New York Public Library after the original collector’s death. All three of these librarians worked to build their own manuscript archives of local history, and all three faced the sometimes hostile scrutiny of local governments and white publics concerned about the radicalizing possibilities of Black archives.

Porter is the only university librarian featured, but the impact of her multidecade career at what is now Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center connected public libraries, private collections, and their various systems of record. Porter surreptitiously designed and shared a completely overhauled Dewey Decimal System that organized collections with an assumption of Black abundance rather than absence. She published annotated bibliographies of early African American manuscripts. She even fielded, for a time, any reference request sent to the Library of Congress regarding Black history because, as that institution reasoned, she would be quicker to respond.

Helton takes great care to place each of her six key figures among a larger network of Black information workers, as well as to show their relationships with one another. Schomburg was ostensibly going to write a piece for a quarterly journal Gumby never managed to publish. Gumby’s focus on ephemera echoed Lee’s collection of local news clippings. Porter and Harsh were in correspondence with librarians at the Schomburg NYPL branch. Reddick’s commitment to documenting contemporary Black civil life was a continuation of Porter’s amassing of the manuscript record of Black life in the early Republic.

Helton’s decades of work on the topic of Black archives are evident in her sometimes too-dense thicket of connections, references, and endnotes. Scattered and Fugitive Things can be read straight through fairly easily, but absorbing the network of connections, theoretical references, and citations requires a much larger commitment of energy and attention. But this only mirrors the work of the catalogers highlighted in the book, whose work ensured that any spark of interest could be followed up along a myriad reference paths.

Helton also displays a librarian’s sensitivity to stewardship throughout the book. She expands her interpretative lens, as a 21st-century white woman scholar, by being in constant conversation with hundreds of scholars, Black and white, and with the archival record itself. When she writes that James Weldon Johnson notably excised Gumby from his history of African Americans in New York, Black Manhattan (1930), Helton’s endnote cites Gumby’s personal correspondence, in which he expressed his feelings of exclusion. There is no assertion without citational backup in Scattered and Fugitive Things, a scholarly approach that occasionally clutters the narrative but also helps the text stand as a foundational history of what Zakiya Collier and Tonia Sutherland have called “Black archival practice.”

So much of our ability to understand the Black past is built on the foundations established not only by these archivists and librarians but also by governments willing, however briefly and incompletely, to fund large-scale public works, by individuals and communities unafraid to risk their own safety to obtain knowledge, and by a broad cultural understanding that there is deep value in learning about oneself.

LARB Contributor

Dorothy Berry is the digital curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She has led digital collection development at major public and private institutions, focusing on access to Black archives. Her writing has appeared in The Public Domain Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, up//root, and various academic journals focused on archival discovery and access. She has forthcoming work in American Revolutions in the Digital Age from Cornell University Press and the catalog to Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.


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