Writing Black History With Scissors

Your Take: Scrapbook makers like William Henry Dorsey offer a unique look at African Americans' past.

William Henry Dorsey (Colored American magazine); obit in the "Colored Centenarians" scrapbook (Cheyney University Archive)
William Henry Dorsey (Colored American magazine); obit in the "Colored Centenarians" scrapbook (Cheyney University Archive)

(Special to The Root) — William Henry Dorsey never imagined that there would be a National Scrapbooking Day (May 4), and most present-day scrapbookers have probably never heard of Dorsey. But Dorsey, the son of an escaped slave, was one of the most prolific scrapbook makers in the United States. He was born in 1837 in Philadelphia, where he made about 400 scrapbooks during the 1860s through about 1903, mostly about black life and history.

Although W.E.B. Du Bois consulted Dorsey’s scrapbooks while writing The Philadelphia Negro, and other historians have used their clippings as a resource, the scrapbooks have rarely been credited as extraordinary texts, written with scissors. Other black scrapbook makers of the period, too, pulled black history from the often hostile white press, in some cases making more than 100 scrapbooks of densely covered pages each. These scrapbooks, scattered in libraries and collections around the country, deserve to be read as the thoughtfully created works they are.

A close look at one of Dorsey’s scrapbooks demonstrates the value of his work. In 1866 he saved a newspaper item about the death of his great-grandmother, who was more than 100 years old. He didn’t know he would go on to create an astonishing, unique record of African-American involvement in the early history of the U.S. For the next 40 years, he clipped accounts of 200 black centenarians from newspapers and pasted them into a scrapbook.

Every page of the scrapbook he made from these clippings asserts the presence and significance of African Americans in the founding of the nation. When these two-line obituaries and longer interviews appeared in newspapers — mainly white newspapers — they were just individual curiosities. Gathered together, Dorsey’s collection of accounts of black elders, some born in Africa and the rest born into slavery, asserts the complex place of African Americans in U.S. history.      

Dorsey’s “Colored Centenarians” scrapbook begins at a time when the journalistic cliché for writing about centenarians was to report on whether they had seen George Washington. His scrapbook reports that they not only had seen him but also fought alongside him or had been owned by one of the Founding Fathers.

Dorsey was a media critic, and his scrapbook speaks through juxtaposition: He placed articles next to one another, to spotlight the contrasting experiences of white and black men and women in relation to the founding of the country. So Lizzie Gray’s brief obituary tells that she was captured in Africa during the American Revolution, spent the war on a British ship and then was released from the ship into slavery. Though the reporter fails to note the irony of Gray’s slavery beginning with the nation’s liberation, Dorsey provides that irony by setting her story next to those of black people who fought for America’s freedom.