Dorothy Porter


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(1905–1995), bibliographer and curator.

In the introduction to Richard Newman's Black Access: A Bibliography of Afro-American Bibliographies (1984), Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley writes that her appointment in 1930 as “librarian in charge of the Negro Collection” at Howard University Library in Washington, D.C., was the turning point in her life. She had recently been one of the first two African Americans to receive the master's degree in library science from Columbia University. In accepting the Howard position, she brought the energy and intelligence necessary to make what would become the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center the renowned repository it is today. She has spent nearly six decades collecting, cataloging, and writing about the works of African Americans, Africans, Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Cubans, West Indians, and people of African descent living in the Spanish-speaking countries of South America. Moreover, her own scholarly publications about African American culture and people provide further evidence of her resourcefulness.

In 1914, Jesse E. Moorland gave Howard University most of his private collection about people of African descent, but it and many other items of Africana remained unavailable to readers until Dorothy Porter set about ripping open boxes and cataloging their contents. She determined that the Moorland donation amounted to about three thousand pieces, and eventually edited and annotated one segment of it in A Catalogue of the African Collection in the Moorland Foundation Howard University Library (1958). When she retired in 1973, the Moorland gift had grown to over one hundred and eighty thousand items, including those bequeathed to Howard University by bibliophile Arthur B. Spingarn. In fact, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center has developed into the largest and most comprehensive repository on African Americans at an academic institution. Porter's collecting techniques ranged from buying and trading books, to encouraging donations, to actually picking up texts wherever they were available. She saved from the trash heap files from the Washington, D.C., chapter of the NAACP. Indeed, Porter was nicknamed “bag lady” because she made “salvage excursions” to basements and attics owned by the educator Mary Church Terrell and other distinguished African Americans.

Perhaps Porter's greatest influences on African American literature have been her numerous published bibliographies and one anthology. North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist of Their Writings 1760–1944 (1945) expands on the first notable bibliography of African American poetry, A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry (1916), published by Arthur A. Schomburg. Porter's volume includes annotated entries on books and pamphlets by individual poets, anthologies, as well as other annotated listings. Her anthology, Early Negro Writing 1760–1837 (1971), reprints such items as books, pamphlets, broadsides, and parts of books that document the economic, social, and educational improvement societies founded by mostly northern African Americans. More specifically, the anthology includes constitutions and bylaws of beneficial societies, speeches, reports, debates about colonization outside America, and sermons. Porter has also published several scholarly articles in journals, such as “Early Manuscript Letters Written by Negroes” in Journal of Negro History (1939), “A Library on the Negro” in American Scholar (1938) and “Bibliography and Research in Afro-American Scholarship” in Journal of Academic Librarianship (1976).


Subjects: Literature — United States History.

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