Wesley, Dorothy Porter 1905–1995
Dorothy Porter Wesley 1905–1995
Dorothy Porter Wesley was a librarian and curator who, with a passionate single-mindedness, built the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University into one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of African American history in the world. Beginning with 3,000 items in 1930, Wesley expanded the Center into an archive of more than 180,000 manuscripts, books, pamphlets, letters, oral history works, and microfilms by the time she retired in 1973. Along the way, Wesley received numerous honors and prizes culminating in the Charles Frankel Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which was presented at the White House by President Clinton a year before Wesley died of cancer in December of 1995.
Dorothy Porter Wesley was born Dorothy Burnett on May 25, 1905 in Warrenton, Virginia, the oldest of Dr. Hayes J. Burnett and his wife Bertha Ball Burnett’s four children. The Burnetts lived in Montclair, New Jersey, and their children were educated in the public schools. After graduating from high school, Wesley enrolled in Minor Normal School in Washington, D.C. In 1926, she continued her education by transferring to Howard University and began working in the university’s Founders Library as a student assistant. Intent on becoming a librarian, Wesley enrolled in the Columbia University School of Library Science where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in 1931. She also earned a scholarship to continue her graduate studies at Columbia and became one of the first African American women to receive an M.L.S. from Columbia in 1932.
In 1928, while pursuing her studies at Columbia, Wesley obtained a position at the Carnegie Library at Howard University as a cataloger. The following year she married James Porter, an artist and chairman of the Howard art department. In 1930, Wesley was asked by her boss, E.C. Williams, to assemble a collection of books by black Americans. She began this process by rooting through dusty, old boxes which contained roughly 3,000 books, pamphlets, and other historical items that had been donated to the university in 1914 by Jesse E. Moorland, a minister and Howard University alumnus and trustee. “Nothing had been done in that collection, nothing had been brought together,” Wesley recalled to Phil McCombs of the Washington Post. The Moorland collection, along with the 1,600 piece Anti-Slavery collection donated to the university in 1873 by wealthy, New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan, formed the cornerstone of what was called the Moorland Foundation. The Moorland Foundation became the first research library in an American university devoted exclusively to the culture and history of people of African descent.
Although compiling such a collection might seem an incredibly daunting task, it was clear from the outset that Williams had chosen the right person for the job. “First
At a Glance…
Born Dorothy Burnett on May 25, 1905, in Warren ton, Virginia to Dr. Hayes J. Burnett and Bertha Ball Burnett; died December 17, 1995, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Married James Porter, 1929; (died 1970); married Charles H. Wesley, 1979; (died 1987). Chilren: Constance. Education: Howard Univ., A.B., 1928; Columbia Univ. School of Library Science, B.LS, 1931; M.L.S., 1932.
Career: Began work as library assistant at Howard University’s Founders Library, 1926; appointed curator of Moorland Foundation: A Library of Negro Life, 1930; published A Selected List of Books by and About the Negro, 1936; published North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist of Their Writings, 1760-1944, 1945; advised Howard Univ. to buy the Negro Authors Collection of Arthur Barnett Spingarn, 1946; published The Negro in American Cities: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography, 1967; published Negro Protest Pamphlets: A Compendium, 1969; published The Negro in the United States: A Selected Bibliography, 1970; published Early Negro Writings, 1760-1837, 1971; researcher and consultant to the Moor-land-Spingarn Research Ctr., 1973; published Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography, 1978; named a Ford Foundation visiting fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard Univ., 1988-89.
Selected awards: Honorary doctorate, Susquehanna Univ., 1971, Radcliffe Coll., 1990; dedication of the Dorothy B. Porter Room in Founders Library, Howard Univ., 1973; Olaudah Equiano Award of Excellence for Pioneering Achievements in African Amer. Culture, Univ.of UT, 1989; Trailbiazer Award, Black Caucus of the American Library Assn. (ALA), 1990; Charles Frankel Award, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1994.
I had to teach myself black history,” Wesley admitted to McCombs. “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.”
In addition to her curating duties at the Moorland Foundation, Wesley published many bibliographical works which sought to focus attention on materials for scholars which may have previously gone unnoticed. In 1936 she published the first of these, A Selected List of Books by and About the Negro, for the U.S. Government Printing Office, which had an enormous impact on the study of African Americans. Other works published by Wesley included North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist of Their Writings, 1760-1944, in 1945, The Negro in American Cities: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography, on behalf of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967, and for the Library of Congress, 1970’s The Negro in the United States: A Selected Bibliography
In 1946, upon the advice of Wesley, Howard University purchased the nearly 5,000 volume Negro Authors Collection from Arthur Barnett Spingarn and the Moorland Foundation became known as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Library. In addition to African American authors, the Spingarn collection included works by African, African-Brazilian, and Caribbean writers in more than 60 languages. In 1958 the library acquired Spingarn’s Negro Music Collection, the largest in the world at the time. Like the authors collection, the music collection featured not just African American composers, but composers from Cuba, Brazil, France, Haiti, and elsewhere.
In order to add to the large collections acquired by Howard University, Wesley relentlessly pursued every avenue. “I would go out and beg for books,” she confessed to Linton Weeks of the Washington Post “I would sweep up their basements.” Her efforts provided many rewards. Among them, a letter from Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor who helped design the District of Columbia, to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791 urging Jefferson to consider black people as equals. Another jewel was the brief autobiography of Jarena Lee, the first black woman to seek ordination from the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1836. The center also includes the papers and manuscripts of actor Paul Robeson, singer Marian Anderson, civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, and the founder of Union Bethel Church, John Francis Cook.
The prominence and breadth of the Moorland-Spingam collection encouraged many scholars and authors to utilize its 6,000 linear feet of materials for their endeavors. Louis Harlan used the library to research his biography of Booker T. Washington as did Frederick Douglass biographer William McFeeley and writers Taylor Branch and David J. Garrow for their books on Martin Luther King, Jr. Historian John Hope Franklin credits Wesley for the spark that ignited his 40-year project on George Washington Williams, the 19th-century historian and minister. “I was sort of at a loss as to how to get underway,” Franklin reminisced to Phil McCombs of the Washington Post “I had told Dorothy about my problems, and one day she came up to me with a letter from the Moorland-Spingarn collection, the first letter I have in my possession which Williams had written.… It got me going. I don’t know where I would have been without that letter. From that point, I took off, and for 35 or 40 years I worked on the book.” Franklin published the finished work, George Washington Williams: A Biography, in 1985. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the winner of the Clarence Holte Literary Award for the best book on Afro-American history.
Having created an invaluable collection where scholars and authors interested in African American history could engage in research, Wesley retired from Howard in 1973. To commemorate the occasion and honor Wesley for her years of service, the university dedicated the Dorothy B. Porter Reading Room in the Founders Library. At the ceremony, the historian Benjamin Quarles was quoted by Harriet Jackson Scampa of New Directions 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.”
Wesley kept busy during her retirement years. She remained an active researcher and writer and published several books in the 1970s, including Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography in 1978, which is considered to be one of the authoritative volumes on the subject. Wesley also served as a consultant at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, which was now the official name of the collection. Nine years after the death of her first husband, she married Charles H. Wesley, a historian and professor at Howard, in 1979. This marriage lasted until his death in 1987. The next year, Wesley was a Ford Foundation visiting fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.
Wesley received many honors and awards for her groundbreaking efforts in documenting and collecting African American history. Chief among these was being named a recipient of the Charles Frankel Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1994. In a ceremony at the White House, Wesley was presented with the award by President Clinton. The following year, ill health forced Wesley to move from Washington, DC, her home of more than 70 years, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to live with her daughter, Constance. Wesley succumbed to cancer one month later at the age of 91, leaving behind an unprecedented impact on the field of African American history. “The only rewarding thing for me is to bring to light information that no one knows,” she revealed to Weeks of the Washington Post one year before her death. “What’s the point of rehashing the same old thing?”
Hildenbrand, Suzanne, ed., Reclaiming the American Past: Writing the Women In, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1996.
Hine, Darlene Clark, et al, eds., Black Women in America, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Jet, November 7, 1994, p. 32; January 8, 1996, p. 17.
New Directions, January, 1990.
New York Times, December 20, 1995, p. B-15.
Washington Post, December 16, 1989, p. D-l; November 15, 1995, p. C-l; December 19, 1995, p. E-5.
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