New arrivals of African American literature in Special Collections

Photo of book jacket of King book.

King offers a first look at the bus boycott.

LSU Libraries Special Collections’ manuscript collections are justly celebrated for their stories of African Americans in Louisiana and the south more broadly, be those stories told in the digital collection about the Free People of Color, or as recently cited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his Finding Your Roots  series. Those same voices aren’t as prominent in the Libraries’ rare book collection, but that is starting to change.

One acquisition that seeks to fill in these gaps is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom about the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. (In fact, this book was purchased in honor of African American history month in 2020, but a shipping mistake and then COVID shutdowns mean that it gets to make its debut this year.) This copy preserves the original book jacket, which gives a sense to how the book circulated and King was perceived decades before his lionization as a martyr to the civil rights movement.

Another relevant recent acquisition came by way of the bookseller and collector Wyatt Day. It arrived in two highly anticipated packages, which we took no time in unpacking, as our eagerness was getting the best of us. (The rare book trade might move slowly at times, but rare book curators need not.)


Hopefully these short videos give a sense of the diversity of this acquisition. (As well as our excitement about it!)


While it’s tempting to describe them all, here are a few highlights:

Photo of Baldwin's novel together with his funeral's program, along with Chesnutt's collection of short stories.

Limited edition of Baldwin’s final novel together with his funeral program, alongside Chesnutt’s collection of short stories.

James Baldwin, Just Above My Head (1979). One of five hundred copies of the signed limited edition of Baldwin’s sixth and final novel, with a copy of the program for Baldwin’s funeral in 1987 laid into the book.

Charles Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman (1899). The first edition of Chesnutt’s collection of linked short stories, in which he invokes the genre of plantation literature then popular in the South to condemn its stereotypes and reject their racist underpinnings.

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1893). This revision of the 1881 edition is the final of Douglass’s three autobiographies; Special Collections already holds the first and second autobiographies. the other two of which Special Collections also holds.

Langston Hughes, Troubled Island (1949). An opera written in conjunction with Verna Arvey and composed by William Grant Still, this copy is inscribed by Hughes to the actress Hilda Simms.

Photograph of Douglass's and Hughes' books.

Douglass’s final autobiography and a signed edition of Hughes’ libretto.

Robert Benjamin Lewis, Light and Truth (1844). A rare third edition of Lewis’s ethnographic celebration of African American and Native American history.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977). The first edition of Morrison’s third novel about Macon “Milkman” Dead III, an African American man living in Michigan. This joins Morrison’s critical work Playing in the Dark (1992), a signed copy of which we acquired in 2019.

Ann Petry, The Street (1946). The first edition of Petry’s first novel about an African American woman trying to emulate Benjamin Franklin in her struggle for the American Dream.

This is only a partial list of the treasures that were stashed away in the two boxes, but we should probably hold back a few gems for you to see when you visit us in Hill Memorial Library. (A hint: included is the first novel by the first African American filmmaker!) It will take a little time to catalog all of the books, but soon they — like all of our materials — will be available for anyone to come and consult.

Photograph of Lewis's history alongside the novels of Morrison and Petry.

Lewis’s antebellum history alongside two giants of twentieth-century American literature.

Our collections are always growing to fit the research interests and teaching needs of our community, and these new acquisitions represent our commitment thereto. While never a responsibility to be taken lightly, in this case the gravity of the mission is matched by our sheer joy at fulfilling it. May many more such treasured tomes be in LSU’s future!

In the meantime, should you find yourself quarantined and looking to browse something topical today, the Louisiana Digital Library has two relevant subject guides. The first covers the civil rights movement in our region, and draws on materials found in three different Louisiana libraries. The oral history of Maxine Crump, the first African American woman television anchor in Baton Rouge, seems particularly relevant. The other guide surveys the many materials available about slavery and the Civil War from six different institutions. Tulane University’s collection of documents surrounding the Amistad case always warrant a second look.

Finally, a parting quotation from Dr. King that seems fitting during this month of unprecedented events:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. (Washington, DC, February 6, 1968)

Hear! Hear!

Curator of books and head of instruction in Special Collections.

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