Friday, June 26, 2015

Mellon Scholars Program: Restoring Our Historical Memory

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

My name is Hannah Wallace, and I am a rising senior at Temple University right here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Three years ago, through a desire to reexamine the intersecting realities race contributed to my own life as a biracial woman, I was drawn to take on African American studies as my major along with a minor in Sociology. This decision, though focused inward at first, revealed to me a mission—too great for one lifetime to achieve— to do my part in helping to restore the historical memory of African people throughout the diaspora. It is not enough to claim that African American children are miseducated by our school systems and through false representations of ourselves by popular culture. We must take serious action to reverse these mental and spiritual corruptions. This must be done in such a way that will secure a foundation strong enough for the next generation to continue and improve upon though it will continuously be under scrutiny by those who do not understand or wish to understand the purpose of its existence.            

Though still in the process of understanding myself and the ways in which my own talents could most effectively reach the community, I have grown fond of the notions to either teach or possibly take on a curatorial career for my future—to blend the two into a cohesive institution is ideally the long term dream I will hold onto as I develop my skills throughout graduate school. It is for the sake of remembering our ancestors as well as for the need to rekindle the confidence they had within our own communities today, that I have dedicated myself to such a socially and spiritually challenging task.

My applying to the Mellon Scholars Program at the Library Company was initiated by a helpful professor of mine who had heard of the internship and knew that my interests and work experience in archives placed me in a great position to take on such a challenge. Of course the chance to conduct my own research rather than work behind the scenes, especially with such a vast and aged collection, left no question in my mind as to whether or not I would apply for this opportunity. And so, after months of waiting with fingers crossed, here I am, working alongside scholars and mentors who not only are supportive of my every task, but will surely stay lifelong friends after my work at the Library Company of Philadelphia is complete.

Frontispiece from Thomas Prosper Gragnon-Lacoste’s 
Toussaint Louverture,général en chef de l'armée de 
Saint-Domingue,surnommé le premier des noirs    
Paris, 1877.
The independent research project I am pursuing focuses on the pivotal stage of the Haitian Revolution. At this stage, I am examining the crucial decisions made by powerful members of the Haitian population, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and the free Haitian people of color. From this analysis, I will then recognize the lasting effects these resolutions had on the larger Haitian population as well as African people throughout the diaspora. By placing the overall welfare of African people at the forefront, this analysis will give an in-depth assessment as to if and how Haiti progressed throughout this paramount time in history.

I must thank the Library Company of Philadelphia for granting me this valuable experience to explore history as well as prepare myself for the next steps of my college career. I appreciate these tools given to me and cannot wait to apply them to the road ahead.

Hannah Wallace
2015 Mellon Scholars Intern

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Riddle of Independence: Independent but not Free

Danielle Allen will give the Program in African American History’s 2015 Juneteenth Freedom Symposium talk at the Library Company. While in residence, our Mellon Scholars interns read Dr. Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality and prepared a display of items (reproduced below) from the Library Company’s African Americana collection in response to themes in the book.

Independent but not free. What did freedom mean for a 19th-century African American? These four items demonstrate that even free African Americans were vulnerable to racism or sexism. In addition to social discrimination and prejudice, the law itself often failed to protect the rights and safety of free blacks.

Frontispiece from Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Boston, 1875.
In her powerful “Ain’t I a Woman” speech delivered to the 1851 Woman’s Rights Convention in Ohio, Sojourner Truth brought to the forefront the overbearing intersectionalities that black women faced. Whether free or enslaved, African American women were both the color of the oppressed as well as the gender of the subordinate. They were frequently overlooked in the burgeoning women’s rights movement and often sidelined in the antislavery struggle. Dictated to Olive Gilbert and first published in 1850, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth is a biography of this great African American activist.  Narrative describes the Riddle of Independence that Truth faced throughout her life. Even after obtaining her freedom, she was still not seen as a full human being by many in American society.

Illustration from Jesse Torrey, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery 
in the United States. Philadelphia: Jesse Torrey, 1817.
In A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, Jesse Torrey documents the realities of “free” life for African Americans. Rape, murder, assault, and kidnapping into slavery were ever-present possibilities for a free African American in both the North and the South. Laws and the legal process frequently failed to protect African Americans and their tenuous freedom. The image shown here depicts a free black man being attacked by two white men on horses, their fierce faces contrasting with his frightened stance. After the passage of the 1808 federal law banning the importation of African slaves, a black market arose to steal free blacks from the North and sell them into the chattel slavery of the South.

Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Meeting. 
Syracuse, New York, 1851. 
Opponents of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act convened an ad-hoc meeting in Syracuse, New York, in 1851. The meeting’s report reveals the instability of freedom and helps us understand the perceived illegality of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The new law required all law enforcement officials to comply with returning slaves and penalized those who did not, even in states where slavery had been outlawed. With meeting attendees pledging to disobey the law because of its unconstitutionality, the riddle of independence leads us to question whether or not we as a nation trust in the law of the land. 

Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Conventions, 
Held at Seneca Falls & Rochester, N.Y., July & August, 1848
New York: Robert J. Johnston, 1870.
After decades of activism in the antislavery movement, many women reformers began mobilizing their networks to fight for equal opportunity and protection under the law for women. Activists organized the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Conventions documents the course of meetings that resulted in the creation of the Declaration of Sentiments, a platform for the new women’s rights movement. The Declaration of Sentiments mirrored the language of the Declaration of Independence to show how the latter document failed to grant all people the right to freedom irrespective of gender.

Jalyn Gordon, Joshua Johnson, Hannah Wallace, & Dominique Washington
2015 Mellon Scholars Interns 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Burgeoning Expedition to Community Camaraderie

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Howdy y’all! My name is Jalyn Gordon, and I am from Fort Worth, Texas. I will be an incoming senior at the University of Houston studying Political Science and African-American Studies, and I am ecstatic to participate in the Mellon Scholars Internship Program! As an individual who has attended schools comprised of a myriad of cultures, I was never fully aware of my “differences” until attending my prestigious majority Eurocentric college preparatory high school—I was never treated the same by my peers and I was confused as to why.

I became deeply fascinated with my own cultural history as a college freshman taking an Introduction to African-American Studies class. Needless to say, my life was never the same, and I understood why I experienced the racial hostilities I endured in high school. I instantly became immersed in the challenges and victories of the Africana Diaspora. This deep fascination was heightened when I became the President of the Black Student Union, an umbrella organization for all campus Africana-centered organizations that focus on unifying the black student/faculty population on campus as a whole. This position (and not entirely taking pleasure in other opportunities such as working for Houston’s City Council) affirmed my passion and devotion to Urban Community Development.

Our African-American Studies Department does an excellent job of communicating internship prospects for its students; and as you all can see, I was a recipient of this efficient communication. As I read over the qualifications and description of the Mellon Scholars Program, I whispered to myself, “Girl there’s no way you’re going to get this.” But, my life motto, ‘What would you do if you knew you could not fail?’ reminded me that with the correct mindset, I am capable of all things. (Imagine how I felt when I opened my acceptance letter!). At the Library Company, I am researching the rise of black communalism and autonomy in Philadelphia in the 1800s. Combining my love of politics, community transformation, and black leadership, this topic has graced me with the chance to read some riveting books; my current favorite, titled Freedom’s Prophet, was written by the fabulous Dr. Newman. 

After I complete my undergraduate career, I would like to immediately attend graduate school to pursue a degree in either Public Policy or Higher Education Administration.  I plan to use my knowledge to revolutionize and revamp the spirit of camaraderie in the black community and/or on higher education campuses.

Jalyn Gordon
Mellon Scholars Intern, Summer 2015

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Dead Prostitute, a Male Impersonator, and a Medium: Three Sensational Pamphlets

Our Curator of Printed Books Rachel D’Agostino found these three sensational pamphlets at a recent book fair. Purchased with the Davida T. Deutsch Women’s History Fund, they are the sort of lowbrow items our 19th-century predecessors did not acquire for the Library Company. We now purchase them to be able to document the whole spectrum of 19th-century print culture, not just the material that measured up to their elevated standards.

The first one is about Helen Jewett, a beautiful prostitute who was killed in the New York City brothel where she worked. Her murder prompted a feeding frenzy among journalists. The newspapers featured extensive coverage of the subsequent trial. And many believed that the wealthy young man who was accused of the murder bought his acquittal. 

Satiric response to the not-guilty verdict in the 1836 trial of Richard Robinson for the murder of Helen Jewett.
By 1880, when our newly acquired pamphlet appeared, the 1836 case had passed into the annals of crime. Publishers such as Barclay & Co. profited from the public’s ongoing interest in getting all the details about the case.

The firm of Barclay & Co. also published Runaway Girls and Their Startling Adventures (Philadelphia, 1878). According to the rest of the title, these are “true narratives,” giving “real names” of “young women who imbibed romantic notions of life through reading sensational novels,” which seems odd coming from a publisher that specialized in the sensational! Our favorite section in this pamphlet is “Adventures of a Pennsylvania Girl, Who Disguised Herself As a Boy,” in which “Miss Schwartz” runs away to Philadelphia from a Bucks County farm. After a few preliminary events, she finds work as a “male impersonator” in a “theatre” at the corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets. She continues to cross-dress after the police raid the place, working variously as a clerk in a gentlemen’s furnishing store on Eighth Street, as a messenger-boy in the office of the American District Telegraph Company, as an itinerant street vendor, as a bootblack, as a newsboy, and finally as an errand boy in a grocery store on Girard Avenue. Her escapades come to an end after someone catches a glimpse of her bathing.

The third pamphlet from the Boston Book Fair is Albert Dorman’s The Life of Mary Whittey, the Catholic Medium (Willimantic, 1874). While the Library Company did not acquire a copy in the 19th century, we know from a scholarly study on what William James (1842-1910) read that he probably did. In adulthood, the eminent philosopher became an adherent of Theosophy, a movement that emerged in part from Spiritualism, so it may have interested him to read about Mary Whittey, the “model servant” who first learns of Spiritualism when bells ring, irons and dishes are thrown to the floor, and windows are broken. Since she’s Catholic, her powers as a medium come as a shock both to her and to her employer. After Mary Whittey changes households, her talents as a medium are encouraged, and the spirit she contacts brings amusement and solace to her new employer’s family. Contemporary estimates suggest that as many as twenty million people embraced Spiritualism in mid-19th century America. That number is probably on the high side, but it’s hard to know with any real certainty how many people believed in Spiritualism. Largely discredited today, it’s useful to know that many well-educated people were not total skeptics.

Most likely, the people who read these three sensational pamphlets in the 19th century–including the eminent William James–were simply looking for good escapist reading for an evening’s amusement.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Union Library Company of Hatboro

Union Library Company of Hatboro book plate
The Union Library Company of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, founded in 1755, is one of the oldest public libraries in America and one of many that imitated the Library Company of Philadelphia in name, mission, and organization. Recently the Board of Directors of the Hatboro Library approved a long-term deposit in the Library Company of Philadelphia of some 325 volumes from their collection. Most of them were published before 1800 and they represent some of their earliest acquisitions and their rarest books. None of them is in the Library Company of Philadelphia, and some cannot be found in any American library.

Spine of The History of England, printed in 1757
As part of the deposit agreement, we are cataloging these books in WolfPAC, our online catalog, and the cataloger is Kayla Hohenstein, an Earlham College student working on an internship supervised by the Philadelphia Center, which places interns from a score of Midwestern liberal arts colleges with a wide variety of Philadelphia organizations. When Kayla first interviewed with us, she mentioned that as a high school student she had worked as a volunteer at her local public library, in Hatboro, helping to inventory their historic collection. At that time we did not know when or if the deposit would be approved, but by sheer luck it was approved and the books were transferred here just in time for her to complete the project she began four years ago. Here is a blog post that Kayla wrote about her work with the Hatboro Union Library rare books:

Shelved collection of Hatboro book deposit
In the summer of 2011, at the recommendation of a friend, I applied to work for The Union Library of Hatboro, and went on to assist in cataloging a part of their collection of books and periodicals from the 17th through 19th centuries. Prior to my experience, I was uninformed of The Union Library’s historical significance of being one of the oldest public libraries in the United States, and soon learned of the nature of work that went into caring for and maintaining a fragile and precious collection of this kind.

On my very first day, I was told to come prepared and I remember showing up in my jeans and t-shirt, anticipating the wonder that awaited me. Walking into the library’s main reading room, I looked up at the books that rested on the shelves that lined the walls of the second floor balcony. I had never worked with books this old before and was in awe as I started to carefully handle them as they were cataloged. My job was to assign an accession numbers and to create a flag for each book. This involved documenting the titles, authors, and publication details into an excel spreadsheet, as well as reporting on the bindings and conditions of the books. This experience introduced me to some of the texts on various discourses and treatises from its time, as well as some beautiful printed illustrations such as the ones in Godey's Lady Book Magazine. Every day, I got to hold pieces of history that revealed some of the thoughts that were seen as important during these lifetimes, and I got to listen to the voices of this culture that were passionate, informative, playful and provoking.
Spines of Hatboro book bindings
That summer, I got to work alongside more experienced students who taught me about some of the background and history of the texts. They taught me about some of the basic types of leather, cloth, and marble bindings and I soon found myself identifying numerous stamped leather and cloth bound books that I examined. As time passed each day, I came across books with a wide range of conditions and conservational needs. Some of the books had detached covers and split spines, and I soon became accustomed to coming home with book ash on my jeans, which was common with some of the leather bound books. We tied the books up with spools of cloth tape and placed them back on the shelves, and I never thought that I would be seeing these books any further than their home at The Union Library of Hatboro.
Plate of  Earth's orbit around the Sun in a copy of Samuel Fuller's Practical Astronomy in the Description and Use of both Globes, Orrery and Telescopes (Dublin, 1732)
After four years of working on my undergrad in the Midwest, I found myself returning home to Philadelphia in the last semester of my senior year and enrolling in an internship program affiliated with my school. Since my time working with The Union Library's collection, I knew that I wanted to work in a library and learn more about rare books. I decided to apply for a position at The Library Company of Philadelphia for their groundbreaking history as the first American lending library, and soon learned of their correspondence with The Union Library and their agreement to take some of Hatboro's books on deposit. The symbolic nature of this coincidence brought so much meaning into my life as I assisted in transitioning these books into their new home at The Library Company. Being able to help carry the eighteen boxes of books in and shelve them in their permanent home brought these last four years full circle as I got to see my handwriting on a few of the book tags of books that I had contributed to earlier in my academic career. I feel so fortunate to have had that experience at The Union Library, and to now be able to build on my knowledge and experience here at The Library Company. Since working here, I have been touched by the books and people that I get to work with on a daily basis, and it has inspired me to continue my pursuit in learning more about rare books and in working with these collections.

Kayla Hohenstein in front of Hatboro book collection