The Significance of Private Collectors in African American History

Judge James S. Watson with Alain Locke, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbadwie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Clarence Holt (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

In April 1970, Ebony magazine published a feature on advertising executive Clarence Holte, who was approaching the end of a two-decade stint at Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osbourne, Inc., one of the largest advertising and marketing agencies in the United States. Holte, who would go on to be inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame, had gained national prominence through his role as an “ethnic market” specialist for BBDO, becoming one of the first African Americans to work as an executive in a general-market advertising firm. However, in its profile of Holte, Ebony was less interested in his career as a Black advertising pioneer, and more curious about his vast private collection of books and manuscripts related to Black history and culture – a library of some 7,000 texts which the magazine estimated to be “one of the world’s largest private collections on Black people.”

Holte had been building his collection since the early 1930s, with his commitment to accumulating materials prompted by an experience as a student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s oldest historically Black colleges. After listening to a classmate from Nigeria talk at length about the history and culture of West Africa, he was embarrassed when the student asked him to discuss the history of Black people in America. Holte was forced to admit that he knew very little about the subject, given the lack of Black history content included as part of his high school education. The incident marked the beginning of a lifelong search for “knowledge of his people.” By the beginning of the 1970s, almost every spare corner of the executive’s spacious five-room apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City was taken up by volumes relating to Black life in Africa, the Americas, and in other parts of the world.

It was no coincidence that Ebony’s profile of Holte’s “search into the black past” echoed the title of Arturo Schomburg’s 1925 essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” which was published in Survey Graphic.1 In his article, Schomburg declared that “the American Negro must remake his past in order to remake his future.” To this end, Schomburg, along with figures such as journalist and printmaker Henry P. Slaughter and Harlem based preacher Charles D. Martin, played a major role in “stimulating the collection from all parts of the world of books and documents dealing with the Negro.” By 1925, Schomburg had amassed close to 10,000 books, manuscripts and artifacts related to Black history and culture. The following year, the bibliophile’s entire collection would be purchased by the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library with assistance from the Carnegie Corporation, forming the basis of what would come to be known as the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art.

Schomburg’s reputation as an Africana collector par excellence, as well as the continued connection of his name to one of the nation’s premier Centers for research into Black life and culture, has meant that his career as a bibliophile has garnered considerable scholarly attention. Yet this is not true for many private collectors, who are often dismissed as amateurish, if enthusiastic, participants in the preservation of Black history, or whose motives are viewed with suspicion. When Holte attempted to get works by noted Black sociologist and activist W.E.B Du Bois signed by the author, he was rebuffed, with Du Bois assuming that the executive was pursuing a “commercial undertaking” and “fronting for a big Madison Avenue concern.”

It is certainly true that Holte’s career on Madison Avenue had helped to finance his collection; something which presumably contributed to Du Bois’s distaste. Yet the executive did not view the collection as merely a hobby or passion project. Holte contended that his collection was “designed for scholarly research, for I have concentrated on primary sources, going back beyond the works that are commonly known to the public.” Many of the books in his collection had never been issued in the United States, with Holte purchasing thousands of texts on field expeditions to Africa as part of his role as an ethnic market specialist for BBDO. Perhaps more significantly, Holte endeavored to channel his interest in Black history back into his role as an advertising executive, using material from his collection to develop pioneering Black history-oriented advertising campaigns for BBDO clients. Shortly after the publication of his profile in Ebony, Holte quit BBDO to set up an Afrocentric publishing venture called the Nubian Press. He would go on to sell his entire collection to the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria following its exhibition at the second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977.

For private collectors such as Schomburg and Holte, the accumulation of materials related to Black culture represented both a celebration of Black heritage and a form of resistance to the plundering of African artifacts by white collectors and institutions (even as many white westerners continued to contend that Africa “had no history.”) Better to be on a brownstone bookshelf in Harlem, so the thinking went, than in the basement of the British Library. These efforts would often move outside of expanding personal libraries, with Schomburg and other Black bibliophiles of his generation underpinning the development of Black history societies such as the Negro Society for Historical Research and contributing to the broader trajectory of the early Black history movement. In turn, private collectors such as Holte contributed to what Vincent Harding describes as the “modern Black history revival” during the decades following World War II, as well as the development of the Black Studies and Black Museum movements. It was not only individuals who participated in this trend. Black-owned companies such as Johnson Publishing Company also invested heavily in private collections of African and African American artwork and the development of corporate libraries dedicated to Black history and culture during the 1960s and 1970s.

Frequently operating outside of the academy and dismissed as amateur enthusiasts by “professional” academics such as Du Bois, private collectors have nonetheless played a pivotal role in preserving Black history artifacts and ephemera. Indeed, as Elvin Montgomery has noted, amateur collectors have often led the way in historical preservation, with scholars lagging behind collectors “in their definition of what is worth collecting.” African American folktales “first entered the public consciousness by way of the work of amateur collectors during the Gilded Age”, while newfound interest in material cultural stemming from the cultural turn in American history has made the preservation of racist memorabilia by figures such as James P. Hicks and David Pilgrim seem almost prescient.

Perhaps more importantly, such efforts to preserve the Black past can be understood as a community undertaking. For every celebrity accumulator such as Grant Hill or Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, there are hundreds of thousands of more modest collections kept by “treasure seekers” across the diaspora. Irrespective of size or stature, individual collections provide an important reminder that the preservation of Black history is not a foregone conclusion, but that it is a struggle which is constantly fought and refought by those who value it.

  1. Arturo Schomburg, “The Negro Digs Up His Past”, Survey Graphic, March 1925.
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.