Dorothy B. Porter (later Wesley) was a librarian, curator and bibliographer. These aren’t roles that attract heaps of popular interest, so odds are you haven’t heard of her before this. Regardless, she made important contributions to advance the study of Black history and culture during her long tenure at Howard University. There she played a pivotal role in shaping and building the university’s special collections, turning the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center into what its director described at the time of her death, in 1995, as “one of the world’s largest repositories for studying black history and culture.”
Porter was born Dorothy Burnett in Virginia, in 1905, and spent much of her youth in Montclair, New Jersey. She attended teachers college in Washington, D.C. before an interest in books lured her to a career in libraries. Undergraduate degrees at Howard and Columbia followed, as well as an M.S. in library science from the latter in 1932. Beginning as a cataloger, Porter then spent four decades at Howard. By the time she left, Howard’s collections had seen exponential growth, thanks in large part to the doggedness with which she pursued acquisitions.
As Zita Cristina Nunes’ 2018 article on Porter highlights, this collection was a new frontier which had its challenges. Among these was finding way to classify library materials on Black subjects when existing classification systems made little to no accommodation. Importantly, Porter also learned to be proactive in creating opportunities to collect despite modest financial support. Critical, was her ability to seek out and build relationships that often landed new acquisitions.
This provides interesting context for Porter’s correspondence in the New-York Historical Society’s own institutional archives. The first communication from Porter came in 1932, two years after her arrival at Howard. In it, she inquires whether N-YHS holds an extremely rare 1829 copy of the Black poet George Moses Horton’s The Hope of Liberty. This was likely for a bibliography of Black poets that Porter would publish years later, in 1945.
Most of the exchanges though are with N-YHS director R. W. G. Vail. In March 1945, Porter writes of Howard’s president Dr. Mordecai Johnson’s interest in purchasing a body of duplicate pamphlets and books from the N-YHS collections “on the Negro.” Asking for a price, Porter’s letter hints at the monetary impediments she faces: “We are a government institution and funds are not always available for purchasing everything we wish.”
According to Vail, the group encompassed 5,445 pamphlets and 202 bound volumes. For them, he floated a price of roughly $1 per item. That sum, in the range of $25 today, wouldn’t seem prohibitive but $5,500 for entire selection equates to a significantly more daunting equivalent of $80,000. Unfortunately, after several months attempting to secure the money, and some gentle nudging by N-YHS, Howard’s university librarian Walter G. Daniel wrote to Vail in December to explain that, without sufficient funding, he was “waiving any prior consideration.” Shortly thereafter Columbia stepped in to acquire the group.
In something of a consolation, the correspondence does show that Howard and Porter secured a selection of under 300 items from an additional group of N-YHS duplicates later in 1946. This followed the arrival of “a large sum of money.” Ever vigilant, Porter also took the opportunity to ask Vail for any leads on potential sellers.
The exchanges between Vail and Porter were not limited to buying and selling. In the midst of this back and forth, Porter graciously identified N-YHS’ portrait of “the well-fed looking gentleman,” as she described him, as Peter Williams, the clergyman, abolitionist and graduate of New York’s African Free School. In 1945, Vail wrote to Porter sharing concerns for the Frederick Douglass Papers expressed by “a professor at one of our universities.” Although he suggests that nearby Howard would be an ideal repository for the papers (then still at the Frederick Douglass Memorial House), it’s unclear if the suggestion went anywhere since Douglass’ papers only began making their way to the Library of Congress from the National Park Service in 1972. (Interestingly, while he remains unnamed in the letter, a note attached to the retained copy seems to confirm that “professor” was Philip Foner, the noted historian and biographer of Douglass, who also produced an edition of his writings.)
The letters show that Porter’s work left an impression on Vail, who in 1947 suggested that she would be an “authoritative” reviewer of John Hope Franklin’s now classic work From Slavery to Freedom in the N-YHS Quarterly. He also happily wrote a letter of reference in support of her 1957 Fulbright application to survey repositories and private collections in British West Africa. The following year, perhaps with sting of her unsuccessful Fulbright bid in mind, Vail wrote glowingly about the publication of a “magnificent” catalog of Howard’s African Collection. According to him, “as a compilation and as a piece of printing this is a model for others to follow.” In his praise he noted her modesty as well, which obscured the scale of her contribution: “you tell no one how the collection was built and who did all the chasing around all over Africa to build it.”
At face value these letters are mundane professional exchanges, hardly worth a second thought. Yet, appreciating how important such connections were to Porter’s prolific collecting, they illustrate how she interacted with colleagues and the impact she had on them. Either way, they comprise just a sliver of Porter’s broader contribution to scholarship, one that shouldn’t be underestimated. So this Library Week it’s fitting that we recognize Dorothy Porter, an understated but important figure whose legacy continues to have a positive impact on how we interpret, and re-interpret, our past.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts