African American Culture and History: The L.S. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana
About this Collection
Alexander Gumby (1885-1961) was a book collector who ran asalon in Harlem known as the Gumby Book Studio because of the hundreds of booksthat lined the walls. His salon, a large, rented studio on Fifth Avenue between131st and 132nd Streets, attracted many theatrical and artistic luminaries.
Gumby started his scrapbook collection in 1901 at the age ofsixteen. After moving to New York, he began to collect with greater seriousnessthe materials that comprise his collection. In 1910 he started the process ofgathering the material that he had assembled into scrapbooks. Forty yearslater, in 1950, he presented his acclaimed collection to the ColumbiaUniversity Libraries. The materials consist of newspaper clippings, periodicalextracts, photos, pamphlets, playbills, letters, manuscripts, and materialsGumby gathered personally from people of note such as Josephine Baker, JoeLouis, Paul Robeson, and many other political, cultural, and sports figures.Each scrapbook is devoted to one subject, either a person, an organization, ora topic.
A strength of the collection is the individual scrapbooks onnoted people such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Bunche, FrederickDouglass, Marcus Garvey, Jackie Robinson, Booker T. Washington, and many otherprominent African Americans from all walks of life. Organizations coveredwithin the scrapbook include the NAACP and the Urban League. Gumby also brokeout such topics as Lynchings and Race Riots, Social Equality, The Negro asa Soldier, Harlem, The Negro and Communism, Breaking the Bonds ofSlavery, The Negro in Politics, Negro Columnists, Jazz, Music, Art,and more.
Introduction: AfricanAmerican Culture and History: The L.S. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana
Black History Remains Alive in Alexander Gumbys PopularScrapbooks
By Jo Kadlecek
This article appeared in the February 18, 2002 issue ofthe Columbia News and is reprinted with permission of the ColumbiaUniversity Office of Public Affairs.
On December 8, 1934, the New York Amsterdam Newsreported that Colonel Hubert Julian had a narrow escape from death when theengines of his Moth plane stalled during a fierce storm above the EnglishChannel. Julian, known as Harlems Black Eagle for his aviation savvy andcharismatic personality, managed to fly the battered plane through gianthailstones to safety.
The Colonel was on a return trip across the channel, whichhe had flown earlier to claim the honor of being the first Negro aviator toland a plane at Le Bourget Field. When he arrived back in Harlem with asuitcase full of clippings from the foreign press to prove his near deathexperience, it was the first time the Black Eagle had no immediate plans foranother long distance hop.
The colonels story is just one of hundreds carefullyclipped and pasted in oversized scrapbooks by self-appointed culture-keeper andHarlem resident, L.S. Alexander Gumby. His scrapbooks contain everything fromnewspaper stories and magazine articles to autographs, letters, photos,playbills, and slave documents, all of which record primarily the History ofthe Negro from 1850 to 1960. And as a result of his careful attention tochronicling the subjects of interest to him, the Gumby file, given to the RareBook and Manuscript Library in Butler Library in 1950, has become what Columbialibrarians call one of the most popular files in the archives.
For the past 50 years, the Gumby File has been used all thetime by scholars, biographers, historians, and documentarians researching somespecific aspect of African American heritage, according to file curator BernardCrystal. Anyone can request access to the file, he said, as long as they provescholarly intent. Most research for magazine or newspaper articles, orbiographers can trace the history and images of individuals, Crystal said. Forinstance, one writer was particularly interested in the boxer Joe Louis andspent weeks scouring over the eight volumes Gumby devoted to the fighter.Others have found original autographed photos, stories and letters from artistslike Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, LouisArmstrong, Count Basie, and even a 1936 playbill from the Shubert Theatre for aproduction of At Home Abroad that reads, To Mr. Scrapbook, all the best,Ethel Waters.
The file also contains 18 slave documents, as well asletters and autographs of noted figures such as Frederick Douglass, WilliamLloyd Garrison, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Father Divine,W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey. Because the scrapbooks have now beenconverted to microfilm, articles, artwork, even envelopes addressed to Gumby,can be photocopied.
In addition to profiling Prominent Negroes, Gumbyorganized his scrapbooks into particular themes such as Ethiopia, football,intermarriage of Negroes and whites, lynchings and race riots, Negro business,labor and newspapers, Protestantism, and radio and television. Gumby evenincluded specific announcements relevant to Columbia, like the Feb. 25, 1938review of pianist/composer Luke Theodore Upshures concert on campus.
What makes the collection unique from others on blackhistory is that Gumby clipped things that werent necessarily from themainstream but were unique to the black community, Crystal said, who remembersmeeting Gumby in 1961, only months before his death, when he came to thelibrary to drop off more clippings.
Gumbys own story is almost as interesting as the pieces hecollected. Born Feb. 1, 1885, in Maryland, Gumby was the son of Evangelist LeviThomas and Louisa Morris Gumby. In 1901, he and his sister were sent to livewith their grandparents and there the young man who loved reading made hisfirst scrapbook at the age of 16 with some old wallpaper and a paste of flourand water. Gumbys first clippings were of President McKinleys assassinationin Sept. 1901.
He spent the next year at Dover State College in Delawarestudying law to fulfill his grandmothers dream for him. But he becameimpatient and felt his skills were inadequate. He packed his scrapbooks andeventually headed to New York City, where he immediately fell in love with theplace that would be his home until his death almost 60 years later.
At once I became a New Yorker in spirit and principle for Ifound here more freedom of action than I had ever known before, Gumby wrote inhis 1951 essay, The Adventures of My Scrapbook, for the Columbia LibraryWorld. Gumby became an enthusiastic fan of theatre and art and formed thehabit of collecting all the playbills, pictures, and clippings he could findof his favorites.
During those early years in New York, Gumby wrote that itseemed a willingness to change jobs was a mark of a youths ambition. Afriend told him of a job as a waiter at Columbia and there he began hisrelationships with a number of professors and students. He also clippedeverything I could find about popular professors and President Nicholas MurryButler.
By 1910, he organized his clippings and began to take hisrole more seriously. Gumby studied other collections in libraries across theU.S. and Canada, and also began collecting rare book editions and manuscriptswith the help of his wealthy friend who was a partner in a Wall Street firm.And he met with other collectors like Arturo Schomburg.
At the same time, Gumby took a variety of other jobs to helpsustain his passion. He became, for instance, the personal butler of a wealthybanker in the same area now known as Riverdales Wave Hill. Gumby also was afounding member of the Southern Utopia Fraternity, a group organized for youngmen from the South who came to New York seeking a larger experience.
Soon he became better known more for his collection of rareeditions than for his scrapbooks and he opened the Gumby Book Study at 2144Fifth Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets in Harlem. The historian lined hisstudio with books and continued clipping and pasting historic documents in hisscrapbooks. Gumbys studio grew so popular that it became a gathering place formany artists, actors, musicians, intellectuals, gays and lesbians of the HarlemRenaissance. Gumby called it the first unpremeditated interracial movement inHarlem.
Meanwhile, Gumbys reputation as The Count and Mr.Scrapbook also continued to grow and he was asked to exhibit his collectionsin cities along the East Coast, earning him a listing in the 1922 edition ofthe Private Book Collectors Whos Who. But by the Crash of 1929,Gumbys wealthy friend lost millions and the Studio lost support of itsregulars. The collapse took such a toll on Gumby that he was forced to give upthe Studio, sell many of his editions, and store his scrapbooks in the cellarof an acquaintances house.
The loss of my studio and fatigue from overwork, he wrote,sent Gumby first to Riverside Hospital in the Bronx and then to RandallsIsland Hospital where he spent the next four years. In both hospitals, though,he continued collecting newspaper articles (some about his ownhospitalization), photographs of visiting friends, and get well cards, all ofwhich are included in his six autobiographical scrapbooks. [Editors note: theautobiographical scrapbooks are not included in this microfilm edition but canbe viewed on microfilm at Columbias Rare Book and Manuscript Library.]
When he was released in 1934, Gumby set about retrieving hiscollections and restoring their condition, all the time adding more and moreclippings, autographs and other documents. By 1950 he gave his collection toColumbia and in 1951, the University hired him for eight months to organize thematerials.
Alexander Gumby considered his History of the Negro inScrapbook more than a hobby. He wrote that The collection could well becalled The Unwritten History. Gumby concentrated on African Americanhistory primarily because There are so many surprising and startlinghistorical events pertaining to, or relating to the American Negro that are notrecorded in the Standard Histories, dictionaries and school text-books, or ifso, they are shaded so that they sound like a Ripleys Believe It or Not.
Certainly, Gumbys life-long commitment to recording thehistory of African Americans continues to provide invaluable research today.
The L.S. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana ishoused in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University in theCity of New York. The Primary Source Media, an imprint of Gale, a part ofCengage Learning, edition, developed from a microfilm edition of the Collectionthat is also housed at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia,features a contents list for each reel at the beginning of the reel, as well asan improved collection guide that includes a full introduction to the Collection.
This guide lists scrapbook volumes in the order in whichthey appear on the reels. The volumes were organized on the reels by ColumbiaUniversity following an alphabetical arrangement of the volumes topics. In thecourse of the original filming, pages for volumes one and seven were filmed inreverse order, therefore requiring that the user unwind the reel from right toleft (i.e., mount the reel on the right-hand reel holder, with the take-up reelon the left-hand holder) instead of the standard left to right.
The project would not have been possible without assistancefrom many individuals. Primary Source Media wishes to thank Jean Ashton,Director, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, for hercommitment to making this collection widely available and Bernard Crystal,Curator of Manuscripts at Columbia Universitys Rare Book and ManuscriptLibrary.