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Honoring Dorothy Porter and ‘Early American Negro Writings’ at 75

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Dorothy Porter’s (1905-1995) “Early American Negro Writings: A Bibliographical Study,” (access via the University of Chicago Press or JStor) published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Porter’s 1945 essay is a touchstone of Black bibliography; her insistence that African American writing merited a place in the Papers was – and remains – a critique of bibliographical studies more broadly. Through this essay and later work, such as Early Negro Writing (1971), Porter helped define a field of Black authorship that expanded the idea of how, where, and for what purposes Black writers used print in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Challenging a prevailing view of Black subjects as unlettered and absent from early literary history, she revealed a large and rich field of “Negro literature” located in hymn books, orations, almanacs, petitions, newspapers, satires, sermons, and organizational proceedings—as well as in poetry and narrative. For decades, Porter’s expansive and collective understanding of Black textuality has guided bibliographers, cataloguers, literary scholars, and historians.

Recent work from Laura Helton, Zita Nunes, and Autumn Womack has given us a new appreciation for Porter’s innovative cataloguing practices and use of resources as curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Her cataloguing system, for instance, centered the African diaspora and created a way of seeing blackness where it was not marked within dominant knowledge structures.

Honoring Porter’s Legacy

As recent social justice movements have brought renewed attention to institutional collecting practices and systemic racism in the scholarly community, the Bibliographical Society of America seeks to honor Porter’s contributions with two distinct efforts. The Society wishes to thank and recognize Laura Helton and Derrick R. Spires as the drivers of this initiative, which would not have been possible without their intellectual generosity, nor without the time that they invested in both the webinar and the bibliography.

The Fellowship

Update (January 26, 2023): read about the effort to fully endow the Dorothy Porter Wesley Fellowship for Black Bibliographers.

The BSA is delighted to announce another new fellowship available to scholars for the 2021 Fellowship cycle, this one in continuation of our celebration of the life and legacy of Dorothy Porter at the 75th anniversary of the publication of her “Early American Negro Writings” in PBSA. We are grateful to Bruce and Mary Crawford and to Barbara A. Shailor for co-sponsoring this Fellowship through 2023, and for their commitment to helping the Society secure funding for 2024 and beyond.

The Dorothy Porter Wesley Fellowship ($3,000) supports bibliographical study conducted by a Black individual. Building on the Society’s commitment to expanding representation of scholars of all backgrounds and identities, this short-term fellowship may be used to pursue bibliographical research in any field and of any period. Projects may include studying the history of book or manuscript production, publication, distribution, collecting, or reading. Projects to establish a text are also eligible. The fellowship honors the life and work of Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995), an accomplished Black bibliographer and librarian, an active member of the Society, and author of the influential 1945 PBSA article “Early American Negro Writings.”

The first ever Dorothy Porter Wesley Fellow is Jacinta Saffold (University of New Orleans), for her project “Independent Hip Hop Production as Freedom Dreaming”. Applications for the next Fellowship period will reopen in the summer of 2021, with a deadline for applications in the fall. Check our website or subscribe to our mailing list for more information.

The Webinar

On August 20, Laura Helton and Derrick R. Spires convened an interdisciplinary group of scholars and librarians to reflect on Porter, her unfinished mission to make Black print accessible, and the blueprint she provided to rethink bibliography, archives, and libraries today for an online event, which you can now watch on the BSA YouTube Channel. Dorothy J. Berry, Dr. Melanie Chambliss, and Dr. Janet Sims-Wood were co-panelists.

The Bibliography

Drs. Helton and Spires also compiled a bibliography of works by and about Dorothy Porter, which also includes a list of repositories with primary source materials for further study which we encourage you to consult below.

Open Access
“Early American Negro Writings,” originally published in PBSA in 1945, is currently available for free download via The University of Chicago Press website and JStor until February 15, 2021. In an effort to inspire further research on Porter’s life and legacy, the Society is currently engaged in an effort to make Porter’s other published articles available via JStor for free to the public. Articles marked with an asterisk (*) are now available for free download; we hope to update this page soon as we continue to communicate with other publishers and our partners at JStor.

Selected writings of Dorothy Porter

*”Sarah Parker Remond, Abolitionist and Physician.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 20, no. 3, July 1935, pp. 287-293.

*Library Sources for the Study of Negro Life and History.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 5, no. 2, April 1936, pp. 232-244.

*The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 5, no. 4, October 1936, pp. 555-576.

*A Library on the Negro.” American Scholar, vol. 7, Winter 1938, pp. 115-117.

*The Preservation of University Documents: With Special Reference to Negro Colleges and Universities.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 11, no. 4, 1942, pp. 527–528.

*Early American Negro Writings: A Bibliographical Study.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 39, 1945, pp. 192-268.

North American Negro Poets: a Bibliographical Checklist of Their Writings, 1760-1944. Hattiesburg, Miss.: The Book Farm, 1945. (revised and updated edition of Arthur A. Schomburg, American Negro Poetry, Bibliographia Americana, ed. Charles F. Heartman, Volume II. New York: Charles F. Heartman, 1916.)

*The Negro in the Brazilian Abolition Movement.” The Journal of Negro History, vol 37, no. 1, January 1952, pp. 54-80.

The African Collection at Howard University.” African Studies Bulletin. vol . 2, no. 1, January 1959, pp. 17-21.

Documentation on the Afro-American: Familiar and Less Familiar Sources.” African Studies Bulletin, vol 12, no. 3, December 1969, pp. 293-303.

The Negro in the United States, a Selected Bibliography. Washington, D.C: The Library of Congress, 1970.

Early Negro Writing, 1760-1837. Beacon Press, 1971.

“Bibliography and Research in Afro-American Scholarship.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol 2, no. 2, May 1976, pp.77-81.

Afro-Braziliana, A Working Bibliography. Boston: G.K Hall, 1978.

“Fifty Years of Collecting.” Black Access: A Bibliography of Afro-American Bibliographies, edited by Richard Newman, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. xvii-xxviii.

Archival Collections

Dorothy Porter Wesley Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Records of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Record Group 1, University Archives, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

James A. Porter Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

Selected works about Dorothy Porter

Battle, Thomas C. “Dorothy Porter Wesley.” Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 2nd supplement, edited by Donald G. Davis, Libraries Unlimited, 2003, pp. 219-21.

Belt, Marva E. and Tomasha P. Hall. “Dorothy Porter Wesley: A Selected Bibliography.” Moorland-Spingarn Research Center Publications, Paper 2, 2015.

Bledsoe, Kara. “What Dorothy Porter’s Life Meant for Black Studies.” JSTOR Daily, August 22, 2018.

Chambliss, Melanie. “A Library in Progress.” The Unfinished Book, edited by Alexandra Gillespie and Deirdre Lynch, Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 260-271.

Helton, Laura. “Making Lists, Keeping Time: Infrastructures of Black Thought, 1900-1950.” Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print, edited by Brigitte Fielder and Jonathan Senchyne, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019, pp. 82-108. 

Helton, Laura. “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading.” PMLA, vol. 134, no. 1, 2019, pp. 99-120.

*Lubin, Maurice A. “An Important Figure in Black Studies: Dr. Dorothy B. Porter.” CLA Journal, vol. 16, no. 4, June 1973, pp. 514-518.

*Madison, Avril Johnson and Dorothy Porter Wesley. “Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley: Enterprising Steward of Black Culture.” The Public Historian, vol. 17, no. 1, Winter 1995, pp. 15-40.

Nunes, Zita, “Cataloging Black Knowledge.” Perspectives on History, November 20, 2018. 

Scarupa, Harriet Jackson. “The Energy-Charged Life of Dorothy Porter Wesley.” New Directions, vol. 17, 1990, pp. 6-17.

Sims-Wood, Janet. Dorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History. History Press, 2014.

Womack, Autumn. “Reprinting the Past/Reordering Black Social Life.” American Literary History, forthcoming.

Current projects in Black bibliography and description

African American Subject Funnel Project, Library of Congress

Black Bibliography Project, Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill, Co-Directors

Black Book Interactive Project, Maryemma Graham, Director

Black Self-Publishing, Elizabeth Pope, American Antiquarian Society

The Colored Conventions Project, Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey, Co-Founders and Co-Directors

Printers File, American Antiquarian Society

Umbra Search, University of Minnesota Libraries