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  • Cultural Record Keepers:Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Chicago Public Library
  • Emily Guss

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When Vivian G. Harsh was appointed to head Chicago's new George Cleveland Hall Branch Library in 1932, she seized the opportunity to capture the African American experience through the written word. Her mission was twofold: to use the library as a platform for fledgling writers and to build a collection of materials by African Americans and about the African American experience.

Bookplate courtesy of the Chicago Public Library.

Harsh started the Special Negro Collection in the 1930s with books, pamphlets, clippings, and photographs she received from friends in the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.1 The first [End Page 359] collection donated was from Charles Bentley, a prominent dentist and civil rights activist, who willed his collection of nearly three hundred books on African American history and literature to the library. Bentley and Harsh had crossed paths two decades earlier, when Harsh, then a young socialite, attended events hosted by Bentley and other events in their social circles. The Rosenwald Foundation also played an integral role in helping Harsh develop the Special Negro Collection by funding her travel to African American collections in the United States, including the New York Public Library's important Schomburg Collection, the largest in the country and the standard by which all other African American collections are judged.

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Figure 1.

Vivian G. Harsh in 1920 at age thirty. Photo courtesy Chicago Public Library.

The collection Harsh was building did not escape controversy. Andrew J. Kolar, president of the Chicago Public Library's board of directors, suggested her appointment was political instead of being based on merit and that the collection was likely to cause a race riot. Despite this opposition, Harsh persevered by continuing to acquire more materials for the collection.

Harsh's semimonthly Book Review and Lecture Forum, launched in 1933, provided a rare opportunity for patrons to hear speakers and participate in dialogue on topics in black history, literature, and current events. During the twenty years of the lecture series, Richard Wright, [End Page 360] Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Horace Cayton, William Attaway, Margaret Walker, St. Clair Drake, Alain Locke, and Katherine Dunham, all prominent writers in the Chicago African American community, participated in the forum.2

By the late 1930s the Hall Branch Library had become the meeting place for young African American writers, artists, and social scientists. Informal gatherings of writers were further driven by the WPA-sponsored Illinois Writers Project and its celebrated Negro in Illinois study, which employed many of these writers.3 After the study was shut down in 1942, the files were donated by Arna Bontemps, one of the study's directors and a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance.4 Of the more than two hundred manuscript collections held in the Special Negro Collection, none has been more heavily used than the IWP Negro in Illinois Papers. The 1945 book They Seek a City, a history of black migration and settlement with biographical data on important African American figures, drew heavily on the files.5 Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake based much of Black Metropolis, the 1945 sociological classic, on the research. Today writers and historians continue to use the study to enrich their investigations.

Harsh's collection offered young people a chance to learn about their own culture; many gained confidence to pursue distant goals. John H. Johnson, for example, credited Vivian Harsh with opening up to him the world of black history. Johnson went on to pursue a publishing career, first launching Negro Digest, then later Ebony, which became the most widely read black magazine in the world. Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago (1983-87), recalled that as a high school student he read through whole sections of the Hall library. In Harsh's collection he "was first exposed to black authors such as Carter G. Woodson, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington."6

Many of the writers who...


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