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African American Books in Special Collections

by Michelle McCoy 2/6/2013 10:36:00 AM

DePaul’s Special Collections & Archives holds a variety of books related to the African American experience spanning classics in literature and poetry, slavery, music, and expositions on race. The collections were begun in earnest in the 1960s when African American students at DePaul formed the Black Student Union. Among their agenda was the creation of classes that included or focused on the achievements, history and culture of minorities, particularly African Americans. Not only did the university respond, but by 1969 Dr. Gilbert Sims Derr, alumnus and faculty in DePaul’s School of Education established a research facility in the area of African-American Studies within the Lincoln Park Library. The approximately 800 titles in the, then circulating collection were named in honor of his wife, Verrona Williams Derr, and formed the backbone of future collecting in this subject area.

Joggin' Erlong by Paul Laurence DunbarThe titles that Derr collected presented multiple facets of issues to tell a full picture of African Americans in history and culture. Along with the “classic” texts by Booker T. Washington or Langston Hughes, for example, there are a number of more controversial titles. These include works that promote slavery or exhibit a clear racial bias as well as titles written in dialect by Paul Laurence Dunbar and others. Dunbar, the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet with black and white readers of his day, wrote in two distinct voices: the standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America. Although he remained always suspicious that there was something demeaning about the marketability of dialect poems, but they enabled him to earn a living from his writing.

The Special Collections bibliography of African American titles also includes holdings from donors other than Derr. The oldest and most rare book in Special Collections that reflects the African American heritage is the 1773 publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Phillis Wheatley, ([1753]-1784) was not onlyPoems on Various Subject by Phillis Wheatley the first African-American female poet to publish a book but she was also a slave. The remarkable book includes copy of a letter sent by the author’s master, John Wheatley, to the publisher which describes her exceedingly grasp of English language within 16 months of arrival from Africa, education by Wheatley family members, her ability to write by 1765, and her inclination to learn Latin. Nevertheless, given this most unusual of circumstances, the publisher requested an additional note and testament to be inserted into the book that named persons of good standing in the community who could attest that Phillis was in fact the author.

Current collecting reflects an interest in ensuring an African American voice is present across a wide range of subject areas. Recent acquisitions include accounts of the African American experience in WWI and Chicago-related events as well as artist’s books that allow African Americans to explore Black History and the African American experience in unique and beautifully crafted formats.
It Wasn't Little Rock by Clarissa SlighIn Clarissa Sligh’s work, It Wasn’t Little Rock, published in 2005 she shares a range of emotions that stem from her mother’s decision to enter Clarissa and her siblings in school desegregation lawsuits. Clarissa uses family photographs, interviews, news clippings, and stark graphics to tell her family’s experience of desegregation.

She quotes her sister, Lillian’s recollections:

“When Mother and Clarissa went to court four years earlier, they were taking a stand. I knew what was going on but I didn’t think it was related to me. However, they were my role models… Mine was the third group of students to be admitted to Stratford under court order in February 1960. Sitting in that courtroom, listening to their arguments, about whether I had the right to go, whether I was good enough, had a great impact on me.”   

Clarissa Sligh has received numerous awards and high praise for her books and art installations. Special Collections has four books written and designed by Sligh. These and other works in the collection can be found by browsing our bibliographies at:

For any other additional information,contact Special Collections and Archives at:

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