"The Unwritten History": Alexander Gumby's African America

"The Great God Gumby" > Introduction

Pictured at right:
Alexander Gumby in 1950.
From: Gumby's Autobiography in Scrapbooks, Number 5, p. [54].

L.S. Alexander Gumby was a remarkable man. He was a bibliophile, amateur historian, social butterfly, and proprietor of a well-known salon during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. He was an African American whose life reflected both the particular status this bestowed upon him and his desire to transcend it. The same might be said (though in a somewhat different way) of his homosexuality. After growing up throughout the mid-Atlantic during the late nineteenth century, his deep-seated love of the arts--to say nothing of his affinity for "the fast life of the bohemian," as his friend Richard Bruce Nugent put it--drew him as a young man to New York City in about 1904, and he made his home there until his death more than half a century later.

Once in New York, Gumby worked as a bell-hop and waiter, and later as a butler and postal clerk, apparently earning just enough money to subsidize his real interests: acquiring the trappings of a dandy, attending the theater, and working his way into the social circles favored by the city’s artists. He also began to collect rare books and manuscripts, particularly those that many others dismissed as "Negro" items--either created by African Americans or related to topics such as slavery that were considered to be of niche interest--which could be had for relatively little money. As he later remembered about the early days of the twentieth century, "bookdealers all such Negro items threw aside when they bought out private collections and found [them]. There was simply no market for them." Gumby took advantage of the situation, adding historical materials to the ephemera and clippings from current publications that he avidly compiled into scrapbooks of contemporary life. By the early 1920s, Gumby recalled, these collections had "become an obsession."

They were quickly becoming fire hazards, as well. By 1925 his "2½ rooms became so crowded with my collections that I finally had to lease the entire second-floor unpartitioned apartment of the house in which I lived." (He did so with the aid of Charles W. Newman, a financier and sometime romantic partner of Gumby’s who helped subsidize both his collection and the rent on what Gumby quickly styled "The Gumby Book Studio.") Part workspace for compiling his scrapbooks, part exhibition space for his collection, and part intellectual and artistic salon, Gumby’s studio on Fifth Avenue near 131st Street in Harlem helped establish himself as a fixture amongst New York's artistic elite. It was here that he earned the nickname, "The Great God Gumby," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the imperiousness which characterized his proprietorship of the salon. It was also here that he staked out an auspicious base from which to collect the materials that would comprise his lasting legacy.


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