Dorothy Porter, Archives, and the Preservation of Black Studies

Dorothy B. Porter (Wikimedia Commons)

The explosive growth of Black studies programs and departments after 1968 triggered a wave of bibliographic scholarship. Colleges, universities, and public libraries were seeking to acquire more Black history-related materials and inventory as well as assessing what they already owned. Following the national urban uprisings of 1968 that occurred in response  to the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Howard University held a “Workshop on Bibliographic and Other Resources for the Study of the American Negro” in July of that year to coordinate access to Black history sources for researchers. Among the rising scholars who would soon lead Black Studies as a discipline were instructors John W. Blassingame and Jean Fagan Yellin. A 900-item “Working Bibliography” was used as a starting point for advancing their consensus principles: fostering discipline-specific bibliographic writing, avoiding bibliographies as a basis for commercial reprints of primary sources, and engaging in cooperative consortium work. The creator of that bibliography was Dorothy B. Porter.

Dorothy Porter was born in Warrenton, Virginia, on May 25, 1904. Her father was a physician and her mother was a professional tennis player-turned homemaker. Soon Porter’s family moved to suburban Montclair, New Jersey, where she and her three younger siblings were raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. In 1923 Porter moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Miner Normal School where she received her diploma two years later. An avid bibliophile and writer, Porter earned a Bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1928. Throughout her education she coupled her passion for Africana Studies with her interest in cataloging and preservation.

After earning her Bachelor’s, Porter joined the library staff as the Chief Librarian at Howard. In 1930, Porterbegan working as curator of the Moorland Foundation, known today as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, and spent her tenure there expanding Howard’s collection to include materials on Black internationalism. Between World War I and World War II, researchers were demanding more information on Africana history, analyses of the current state of Black people throughout the world, and theories of progress and liberation from the foremost Black thinkers in academia, politics, and industry. In fact, from the 1930s onward, Afrocentric ideologies proliferated symbiotically with Black collections. Institutions like Moorland have housed material concerning Pan-Africanism, Black nationalism, Black feminism, Black liberation theology, womanism, social justice, and fundamental explorations of democracy and human nature.

Soon Porter enrolled in Columbia University’s Library School. Since she was not permitted to live in the dormitory due to racial segregation, Porter commuted from Montclair, New Jersey, during the summer while working at Howard. In addition to attending classes, Porter worked in the evening part-time at the 135th Street Branch Library’s circulation desk. She also worked in the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints—known today as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. By 1932, she became the first African American woman to receive a Library Science degree from Columbia University.

After Porter graduated from Columbia, she continued to work at Howard. Porter then enhanced the accessibility of thousands of items in the Moorland Foundation by organizing them under the most popular system of library arrangement, the Dewey Decimal Classification. Since Dewey’s system grouped all works on “the Negro,” including the subject of slavery itself, into a single category,      Porter created multiple subcategories for Black Studies to highlight diverse topics on “the Negro” and debunk the myth that Africana history was a monolith. Researchers finally had “infinite combinations” of description available to them through decimal classification to find materials on African diasporic subjects, including slavery.

As Porter recalled, there were many challenges in expanding Dewey’s technology, which rendered African Americans as either a “slave” or an “immigrant”: “they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization. So [in] all the libraries—many of the white libraries, which I visited later—every book, [even] a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everybody knew was a black poet, went under 325.” By the end of the project, Porter overthrew the Dewey system, classifying works by genre and author to “highlight the foundational role of black people in all subject areas,” with these areas being “art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion.” Porter created a classification system that “challenged racism . . . by centering work by and about black people within scholarly conversations around the world.”

As the development of research protocols for analyzing race in the bibliography expanded, Porter made Black writing visible by not only refusing to essentialize aspects of Black Studies, but also publishing her second major bibliography filled with updated literature on the field in 1945. The purpose of Porter’s project was to compile a global survey of Black verse, including poems published throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Even though her publisher, Charles Heartman, refused to publish what he believed to be an impractically large—and expensive—book, she reduced the bibliography to a hemispheric scope on North American Negro Poets. As Janet Sims-Woods has documented, Porter received funding from the Rosenwald Foundation to develop this bibliography on Afro-Latino American writing. This survey notably revealed patterns of literary production that prompted Porter to use conventional genre-specific categories for the writings she encountered. She listed the “poetry” of Uruguay, the “drama” of Cuba, and the “novel” of Brazil, in striking comparison to the genre-bending categories that comprised her “Early American Negro Writings.” For Porter, “Negro” or “Black” writing varied across time and place, requiring descriptive categories that conveyed the possibilities of that plurality.

With Porter’s departure from Howard in 1973, a new period in Moorland’s history began. The research centerreceived a sizable grant from the Ford Foundation in 1970, which enabled the institution to completelyrestructure the Center’s administration and fund the addition of dozens of staff members to manage the massive collection. Coinciding with a second wave in Black higher education, the grant represented a renewed commitment to Black Studies, which was then an undeniably robust discipline. From W.E.B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking display at the 1900 World’s Fair to the donations made to Moorland-Spingarn by Howard alumni, the recognition of the Black experience as a viable scholarly pursuit—one requiring primary source documentation—facilitated the growth of Black collections and undergirded the emergence of Black Studies.Nevertheless, as Laura Helton explained in her 2019 article, “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” Porter ultimately made one of the greatest contributions to Black Studies and American librarianship through her prowess in edifying Howard’s library collection along with undertaking a revolutionary expansion of the Dewey system.

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Derrion Arrington

Derrion Arrington is the Donor Relations Specialist at Hinds Community College. He is the co-founder of the Laurel Black History Museum and Arts located in Laurel, Mississippi. He is also the founder of the Laurel Black History Project. He is working on his solo-authored book, telling the story of Laurel during the Civil Rights Movement. Derrion has published several articles on African American political thought, labor, and local movements in Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @TheHistorianD

Comments on “Dorothy Porter, Archives, and the Preservation of Black Studies

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    Good morning morning, Thank you so very much for your post today and teaching me so much more about Dorothy Porter. I am currently a graduate student in the Archival Administration program at Wayne State University. I just returned home from a trip to the Archives at Hampton University both a personal journey as well as an academic one. Her name came up several times as well as .. I made a quick note to myself on my cell phone to read more about her.. and then I click on this post this morning from you. This topic is of great interest to me and I had been reading and writing about higher education, libraries, and where and how do we find “STUFF” and the important role of “finding aids” over time. I am an avid reader and bibliophile. not so for everyone, but I am happy to find new treasures every single day. Blessings on you and over you. Much gratitude. Making history come alive as we tel our stories… History Africana Studies, student movements, and the keepers of the records, scribes and storytellers and poets.. oh my..

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    Peace & Blessings,
    Yes, I want to thank you for this article. The entire feild of Africana Studies is amazing to me- its history and development. May God and our Ancestors continue to guide and bless your work in this feild. We need it.

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