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

Gumby's Institutions > Introduction

Pictured at right:
A page from Gumby's scrapbook, "Negro Entertainers."
See: Club Alabam for more information.

In an article that he wrote for a Columbia University Libraries magazine in 1952, Gumby explained the curatorial challenges of organizing a constantly increasing collection of materials. As he explained, his great advancement was to mount his materials on loose-leaf pages that could be re-organized whenever he desired to interfile new material or reconceptualize the collection. This was how the body of African-American themed scrapbooks emerged out of his general collecting interests. As Gumby explained, "after sorting [my scrapbooks] into master subjects, I found that I had enough Negro items for that subject alone. This Negro scrapbook in turn I divided into master subjects; and because the leaves could be shifted, I was able to break the master subjects into chapters. . . . I soon had a bulging volume of Negro items, whereupon I broke the chapters up into separate books. Thus began my Negro Scrapbook collection."

As is true of any curatorial project, the decisions that Gumby made about where to draw conceptual lines between his "chapters" betray his own personal interests and worldview. Thus it is that Gumby tended to use individuals (like Marcus Garvey), groups of individuals linked by occupation or activity (such as "Negro Fighters" or "The Negro in Bondage"), or cultural themes (including "Lynchings and Race Riots" and "Modern Art") as organizational headings rather than specific institutions or locations. Yet institutions did appear frequently in Gumby’s collection, albeit usually as subjects of single pages rather than entire volumes. Occasionally, institutions like the NAACP or the Lafayette Theatre merited entire volumes to themselves. More frequently, their publications and ephemera appeared as institutional expressions of a more abstract theme--such as religion--that defied representation by a narrow focus on a single individual or group.


Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 / rbml@libraries.cul.columia.edu