Online Archive Explores One Man’s Scrapbooks of African American Life

February 14, 2012
Alexander Gumby in 1950. Gumby's Autobiography in Scrapbooks, Number 5. (Image credit: Columbia University Libraries)

L.S. Alexander Gumby may be one of the most influential historians of early 20th century African American life in New York—even though he never wrote a traditional volume of history.

Gumby, born in 1885, was a Harlem resident who, over the course of his unusual life, compiled 161 large scrapbooks filled with manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, artwork, clippings and ephemera. He titled his project, which covered 1850 to 1950, the "History of the Negro in Scrapbook."

His oeuvre has been part of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library since 1950, when Gumby personally delivered his collection to Butler Library. Now, examples from his life’s work are available online on the "Unwritten History: Alexander Gumby’s African America" website, which has digital reproductions of more than 60 pages from his scrapbooks. “It’s a fantastic collection not just for what it contains about American history but for what it says about how a black man in the early to mid-20th century thought about history and how he curated material about African American history,” says Eric Wakin, Lehman Curator for American History, curator of manuscripts, and adjunct professor in the history department.

Gumby devoted 17 scrapbooks alone to various boxers, heavyweight champion Joe Louis being the most prominent among them. The volumes also include 18 slave documents, and one scrapbook page shows an early 19th century newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave from what had been George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. In a wry touch, the ad was placed next to an early 20th century postcard from the same plantation.

Gumby’s own story is one of an eccentric and magnetic African American who curated his scrapbooks with care and attention. Born in Maryland, he made his way to Harlem around 1904, working in a variety of jobs, such as bellhop, butler and postal clerk, which helped subsidize his interest in the arts. His scrapbooks were intended for posterity and were also displayed in his salon on 131st Street and Fifth Avenue, where he hosted talks and events throughout the height of the Harlem Renaissance from 1925 until 1930, earning him the nickname “the Great God Gumby.”

The salon was a frequent haunt for artistic and activist leaders, such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Josephine Baker and Gumby’s close friend, the writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent. Many of these guests left items for inclusion in the scrapbooks, but Gumby also sought out other items, such as letters and autographs from Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey, among others. Gumby’s salon closed when his major financial benefactor nearly lost everything at the start of the Great Depression.

Gumby took it upon himself to collect what might have been lost to history. “I consider my 'History of the Negro in Scrapbook' more than a hobby,” he wrote in "How I Make My Scrapbooks," a text in the library’s archives. “The collection could well be called the ‘Unwritten History’ because several of the items that go into the various epochs have only newspaper, magazines and unpublished letters that record them.”

by Nick Obourn