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

Additional Resources > Biographical Information

Not long after Gumby transferred ownership of his scrapbooks to what was then the Special Collections department of the Columbia University Libraries, the editor of a library publication asked him to write a short history of his fifty years of collecting. Gumby happily complied, but in a prefatory note that accompanied his first draft he included the following proviso: "I realise [sic] there are some things you must say if you use this material . . . such as where I was born, the extent of my academic training, and such." Yet he hastened to add that "the general practice of giving a sketchy biography of Negroes is that to which I strongly object." Gumby then provided some examples of what he meant,

"such as a reference to his or her grand-mother or grand-father having been a slave; and the hashing over of the humble and humiliating ways a Negro is compelled to eke out a living in the northern as well as the southern states, though these facts be granted true. It is a proven fact that discrimination, politically, religiously and educationaly [sic] has become, like slavery, an American classic. To my mind I cannot see where the expression of such sense of inferiority in a biographical sketch is an asset or incentive. . . . It is a theme that has been overdone, even by Negroes themselves. It is true that I have had my full share of discrimination and have been subject to all sorts of humiliation. They have not, however, made me over racially [conscious], or made me resentful, nor bitter, or even 'pinkish' politically."

Gumby's point was that his accomplishments should be judged on their own merits, unqualified by his life experience or any obstacles that he had to overcome in order to achieve them. That his scrapbooks are still regularly consulted by visitors to what is now the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia while his biography remains largely unwritten is perhaps the most fitting fulfillment of this sentiment.

For those who can't help but be curious about who Alexander Gumby was, however, here is a selected list of sources for biographical material:

*The Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana at Columbia University includes six volumes of "Gumby's Autobiography in Scrapbooks" (see CMI Box 26 and Boxes 21, 22, 23, and 24). Additional biographical material appears throughout the collection.

*Gumby wrote a profile of himself for the Columbia Libraries in 1951: L.S. Alexander Gumby, "The Gumby Scrapbook Collection of Negroana," in Columbia Library World, vol. V, no. 1 (January 1951), pp. 1-8. A copy of the publication appears in the Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana (see: Box 24, "Gumby's Autobiography in Scrapbooks, Number 6," p. [9]).

*An abridged version of the above article appeared almost two years later in a different library publication: L.S. Alexander Gumby, "The Adventures of My Scrapbooks," in Columbia Libraries Columns, vol. II, no. 1 (November 1952), pp. 19-23.

*A poet, artist, and close friend of Gumby's, Richard Bruce Nugent wrote a short profile of Gumby along with other figures in the Harlem Renaissance for the Federal Writers' Project. The piece is reprinted in: Richard Bruce Nugent, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, ed. Thomas H. Wirth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 223-26. Additional information about Gumby appears in Wirth's introduction to the collection, especially pp. 28-9.

*Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts included a profile of Gumby in her recent collection of essays about Harlem. See: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011), pp. 118-35.

*An encyclopedia entry about Gumby can be found in: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Eveyln Brooks-Higginbotham, eds., The African American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 230-32.


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