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)

Dorsey offered his scrapbooks for the black community to read at “Dorsey’s Museum” in his Philadelphia home, where he displayed his own and other black artists’ paintings and sculpture, and books by and about Africa and African Americans. Some of his other scrapbooks were focused on segregation and integration of public schools, abolitionist reminiscences and black prizefighters.

Some of the “Colored Centenarians” claimed extraordinary life spans: 116, even 135 years — as though granted an extra lifetime or two to make up for the years of enslavement. Most former slaves had no birth records or other official documentation. This gave them the paradoxical freedom to assert the standing of their own memories. Their age also drew white newspapers to write about them — newspapers that otherwise had no interest in the lives of black seamstresses and street sweepers. Dorsey’s scrapbook critiqued the media that trivialized black lives.

Genealogy and family history have been the driving passion of many amateur historians, and they inspire many of today’s scrapbookers. But Dorsey’s vision was wider. Though his scrapbook begins with a four-line obituary of his great-grandmother — “Old Katy Jackson,” who saw George Washington in 1790 — instead of surrounding her with family history, he put her at the head of a larger history of African Americans in this country.

Black people have used inventive and unconventional methods to keep knowledge of African-American involvement in early American history alive. Black communities have staged pageants, and black newspapers have run history columns, while oral tradition preserved the story of Sally Hemings’ relationship to Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to efforts like these, and the determined work of scrapbook makers like Dorsey, we can honor the passion of ordinary people who used the tools they had — scissors and glue, as well as the pen — to write and save history.

Ellen Gruber Garvey is the author of Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks From the Civil War to the Harlem, which contains information on many more African-American scrapbooks. She is a professor of English at New Jersey City University.

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