Writing Black History With Scissors

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.

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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