The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University remains one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of African-American history in the world. It was started with 3,000 items in 1930 before it expanded into an archive of more than 180,000 manuscripts, books, pamphlets, letters, oral history works, and microfilms by 1973. It has since become a meeting place for scholars and authors interested in African-American history, making Howard one of the primary centers for the study of people of African descent.
And this was all thanks to librarian Dorothy Porter Wesley. Her tireless efforts built the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, transforming it into a leading repository for African-American history. Acquiring a variety of documents, photographs, and other materials about Black history wherever she could find them, she also decolonized the way books were read, putting Black scholars alongside White colleagues, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The journey to building the center was not easy considering Wesley was not given a large budget to work with. But she proved to be the right person for the task. Born Dorothy Burnett, May 25, 1905, in Warrenton, Va., she was raised in Montclair, N.J., in a doctor’s family of four children. Wesley received her B.A. from Howard University in 1928. She became the first African-American woman to complete her graduate studies at Columbia University receiving a Bachelors (1931) and a Masters (1932) of Science in Library Science.
Wesley had enrolled in the Columbia University School of Library Science because of her passion to become a librarian. She began working at Howard in 1928 as a library cataloger and was named, in 1930, librarian of what was to become the Moorland-Spingarn center’s collection. The center was at the time called the Moorland Foundation because it consisted mostly of books donated by Dr. Jesse Moorland, a minister and Howard University alumnus and trustee.
In 1930, Wesley was asked by her boss, E.C. Williams, to assemble a collection of books by Black Americans. She started the process by going through dusty, old boxes which contained about 3,000 books, pamphlets, and other historical items that had been donated to the university by Moorland.
“Nothing had been done in that collection, nothing had been brought together,” Wesley recalled in an interview with the Washington Post.
“First I had to teach myself black history,” Wesley continued. “Then I went around the [Howard] library and pulled out every relevant book I could find—the history of slavery, black poets—for the collection. Over the years the main thing I had to do was beg—from publishers, authors, families. Sometimes it meant being there just after the funeral director took out the bodies and saying, ‘You want all this old junk in the basement?’ Then I stretched my searches to Africa, and Latin America, and anywhere in the world that we had what we call the African diaspora.”
By 1946, Howard University had acquired the private library of Arthur B. Spingarn, a lawyer and longtime chair of the NAACP’s legal committee, who was also a bibliophile, Smithsonian said. Thus, the Moorland Foundation became known as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Library. The Spingarn collection did not only include works by African- American authors, but also works by Africans, African-Brazilians, and Caribbean writers in more than 60 languages including African languages like Swahili, Kikuyu, Zulu, Yoruba, Vai, Ewe, Luganda, Ga, Sotho, Amharic, Hausa, Xhosa, and Luo.
Wesley still went out to beg for books. “I would sweep up their basements,” she told the Washington Post. Thanks to her efforts, the Moorland-Spingarn center holds rare items including the papers and manuscripts of actor Paul Robeson, singer Marian Anderson, and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell. The center also has a letter that Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor who helped design the District of Columbia, wrote to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791 urging Jefferson to consider Black people as equals.
Scholars such as Frederick Douglass biographer William McFeeley would use the library for their research. Louis Harlan also used the center to research his biography of Booker T. Washington.
Decolonizing the library
Lesley at the time challenged the racial biases within the Dewey Decimal classification system used to organize the contents of a library. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. She said in many “white libraries,” “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”
Thus, Porter ignored the Dewey system and instead classified works by genre and author to call attention to the immense role of Black people in all subject areas including in art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion, according to Smithsonian.
Along with running the library, Lesley also wrote several books. She published the “Early Negro Writings, 1760-1837” in 1971; “North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist” in 1945; “Negro Protest Pamphlets” in 1969; “The Negro in the United States, A Selected Bibliography” in 1970; and “Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography” in 1978.
Wesley retired in 1973 as the curator of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center but continued to be an active researcher and writer. Before her death in 1995, Wesley, a wife and mom, received numerous honors and awards including the Charles Frankel Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1994, which was presented to her by President Bill Clinton in a ceremony at the White House.