When Carter Woodson introduced the idea of Black History Week in 1926 his intent was to illuminate individuals, events, stories of African Americans that were generally unrecognized in common sources of information, including books, museums and libraries. Though some dismiss what is now generally known as African American History Month I find this month a welcome opportunity to reminisce about great African Americans I have known – or wish I had known.
Over the decades, an image of Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley has flitted through my mind. A bit of research has awakened me to the spirit of this visionary librarian whose indefatigable efforts have played a major role in assuring that the recorded history of African Americans is collected and preserved for posterity.
I never knew Dorothy Porter, but I remember her well. She was Curator of the Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University while I was a fledgling librarian at the public college across the street, what was then District of Columbia Teachers College. During the 1968 upheaval following the death of Martin Luther King we were all operating in an interim mode, classes canceled, libraries closed, protests on campus. Though its status as a federal building – coupled with the fact that there was no campus – left DCTC a relative sea of tranquility Howard became a rallying ground for student protesters.
My clear recollection is of Dorothy Porter, all five feet of her, bustling about the Howard University campus snatching banners and bulletins and whatever memorabilia she could fetch to add to her massive African American history archives – books, photos, pamphlets, art and artifacts, whatever would preserve and share the stories.
Librarian that I am (it’s in the DNA) I googled to discover what had become of Dorothy Porter, that little dynamo etched in my memory as the quintessential librarian/archivist. A quick search revealed that she had died in 1995, that her first husband, renowned artist and art historian James Amos Porter, died in 1970, and that later she married Charles H. Wesley, former dean of Wilberforce, who died in 1987.
More than this, I found exquisite quotes from Dorothy, snippets that verified my flashes of recall. When Dorothy was first selected to compile the Howard collection in 1930 it was an unprecedented challenge to shape a library that reflected the lives and writings of Black Americans. The need to capture the record, written and oral, was in its infancy. Before Emancipation slaveholders forbade their slaves from speaking their own language and from learning to write or read. As a result, most of Black history and stories was oral.
Pioneer librarian that she was, Dorothy began the process by rummaging through dusty old boxes that contained about 3000 books, pamphlets and other historical items that had been donated to the University in 1914 by Jesse E. Moorland, a minister and Howard alumnus and trustee. She also dug through the 1600 piece Anti-Slavery collection donated to Howard in 1873 by New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan.
And thus was launched the first research library in an American university devoted to the history and culture of African Americans. The task of collecting written records of the Diaspora must have been daunting and dispiriting to young Dorothy Porter who is quoted as saying “I recall that not many years ago the African was said to lack all sense of history because African history was not available in the form of written language.”
Dorothy Porter seized the formidable challenge with gusto. Later she admitted that she had to teach herself Black history. Later she recalled: 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 junk in the basement?’
And thus began the story of Dorothy Porter Wesley who went on to become one of the most prominent curators and bibliographers of all that relates to Blacks in America and in the Caribbean. The list of awards she received during her life and continues to receive posthumously is astronomical. Among other tributes is the Dorothy B. Porter Reading Room in the Founders Library at Howard; during the dedication the presenter quoted historian Benjamin Quarles as saying “without exaggeration, there hasn’t been a major Black history book in the last 30 years in which the author hasn’t acknowledged Mrs. Porter’s help.” Possibly the highlight of her professional career came in 1994 when President Clinton hosted a White House ceremony at which he presented her the Charles Frankel Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Though my heart told me that Dorothy’s legacy lives on I was overjoyed beyond words to learn that her lifetime of collecting African American history and culture is today preserved and shared at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) at the Broward County Library in the Sistrunk area of Fort Lauderdale, an area that was once the heart of the city’s African American community.
The AARLCC is an amazing resource built on the vision of Broward County Library Director Samuel F. Morrison who saw the need for a rich research facility, cultural center and historical archive. The development of the AARLC is a great story in itself.
At the start, Constance Porter Uzelac, daughter of James and Dorothy Porter, took a lead role. When she moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1990 she initiated efforts to preserve and provide access to what she called “Mama’s stuff.” As lasting tribute to her parents Uzelac , a former medical librarian herself, was for a time the custodian of the of the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection which houses and makes available the bibliographic collection of her mother and the art and research of her father.
Today, the work of curating the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection resides with the Broward County Library. Housed within the AARLCC the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection is home to over five thousand bibliographic treasures and memorabilia spotted and saved by Dorothy Porter Wesley.
Little did I know back in 1968 that the powerhouse snatching the toss-aways of the protesters would leave the legacy that is the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection at the AARLCC. What I did recognize and remember so well is that Dorothy Porter was the diminutive model of a librarian. Though the day-to-day of rummaging through basements, spotting what is rare, organizing, preserving, digitizing, cataloging is not dramatic, the results are a living legacy. The record of human history and culture demands and deserves the sort of keen eye and intrepid stamina that Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley demonstrated during those heated days in Washington, D.C.
Little wonder the memory was etched in my mind then and remains there now.