We make one final post for Black History Month on this last day, and an exciting post it is. The University Library has just announced that its seven millionth volume—to be presented by the Hanes Foundation on March 20—is a copy of the first book by Renaissance humanist Juan Latino, widely considered to be the first person of sub-Saharan African ancestry to publish a book of poetry in a Western language. The rare and important 16th-century imprint will become a part of the Rare Book Collection. Read more about Latino and his book in the library news release. And join us for the viewing, presentation ceremony, and a lecture by Professor Michael A. Gómez at the FedEx Global Education Center.
We couldn’t let Black History Month pass without blogging about the Rare Book Collection’s outstanding resources for the study of the Black tradition. Here we highlight a recent acquisition and an extraordinary survival. This ephemeral broadside for the Sabbath School of the State Street M.E. Church is an African-American imprint, dateline Mobile, Alabama, March 17, 1865. There is only one other printing issued in the Confederate States of America known to be of African-American authorship.
This single sheet gives the rules, regulations, and by-laws for a school that appears to have became the first one for African-Americans in the state of Alabama. Sabbath schools were different from the Sunday schools of our era, offering non-religious instruction on the Sabbath, that day being the only one of the week that the laboring classes might have free. The creation of a school for African Americans was a bold move, and this document was produced on the very day that Union forces began their campaign to take the port city.
The State Street Methodist Church was founded in 1829 as a mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church, later the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It came to have a congregation of 500 full members by 1855, when an imposing Italianate structure had been erected as its home. The landmark building still exists in Mobile.
In Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890 (Baton Rouge, 2002), Michael W. Fitzgerald notes that “less than one month after the city fell, the ‘State Street M.E. Colored Church’ opened a school with the assistance of a northern aid society. Ten days later over five hundred students were in attendance, gathered from churches throughout the city.” The broadside now in the RBC would seem to relate to that school’s origins and history. It also elicits all kinds of queries: from the circumstances of access to a printing press to the identities and lives of the “Committee and Framers,” a few of whom can be found in the 1870 census for Mobile, with their “Color” listed variously as Mulatto or Black.
Other schools for African Americans rapidly opened in Mobile in the wake of State Street’s. Tragically, at least two were destroyed by arson. A true rarity, the RBC’s broadside provides material evidence of the Black quest for education in the United States and opens up new avenues for thought and research on Reconstruction and Black history in the American South.
February has one extra day this year, and that gives us the chance to do one last post for Black History Month. While Christina Moody’s Tiny Spark is a favorite recent purchase, this inscribed copy of Claude McKay’s A Long Way From Home is a treasured gift to the Rare Book Collection from Mr. Theodore Jones.
The volume is the autobiography of the Jamaica-born writer McKay in the first edition, published in New York in 1937. Its original cloth cover with foil label is quite worn, but open up, and there’s a surprise, a wonderful page of inscriptions, one from the author to Naomi Davis, the alias of Frances Daniels.
Daniels, Mr. Jones’s mother, was a young African-American or – shall we say – “Aframerican” woman, involved in the literary and political world of 1930s Harlem. Mr. Jones tells us that she was associated with the People’s Bookstore and the Leftist periodical The Liberator, traveling on assignment to the Soviet Union.
Unknown is the identity of Henry, who wrote the first inscription on the book’s front free endpaper, from March 3, 1937: “To Frances, This taken of admiration and affection.” Author McKay adds the second and final inscription, addressing Ms. Daniels by her other name: “And now from the Author for this deliciously sweet Aframerican friend Naomi Davis by Claude McKay.”
McKay employed the adjective Aframerican, now fallen into disuse, extensively in his writings and in the title of his 1940s novel, Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life, published posthumously in 1990. The elision in the word perhaps pleased the ear of the accomplished poet McKay.
The RBC copy of A Long Way From Home certainly proves that inscribed books have more than sentimental value. Its front endpaper transports us to a particular historic and linguistic moment at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, as only material culture can. Here’s to the association copy as documentary evidence for Black History.
In recognition of Black History Month, we highlight one of our favorite RBC purchases of 2010-2011, Christina Moody’s Tiny Spark. Imagine a sixteen-year old African-American girl publishing a book of poetry in 1910: some of it in dialect, some of it provocatively proud of her race, grappling with serious issues – like how a Negro can pledge allegiance to the American flag – as well as the problems of “Chillun and Men.”
The actual book is rare, with only five copies listed in WorldCat. However, you may read her words on the Internet Archive, where the Library of Congress’s copy has been digitized. But know that you can’t see the earnest young poet there, because the LC copy lacks the frontispiece author portrait, which our copy preserves.
Indeed, it goes without saying for those of us who love books, seeing it on the web just isn’t the same. In particular, one doesn’t have the same awareness that the book *is* tiny, the size of one’s hand. Tiny, but electrifying, when you open up and see Christina, and read her verse.
This February 2012, we celebrate the great tradition of African-American poetry and RBC’s fine holdings of it with Christina Moody’s Tiny Spark.