Friday, 2 October 2015

Heritage Spotlight : Scraps of History

Have you ever kept a scrapbook? I have. I’ve still got over a dozen of them I put together when I was a teenager. I’ll be showing you two of them next year which I made 40 years ago. Unknown to me at the time these scrapbooks have become an invaluable record of the time I compiled them, something that can’t be reproduced in the digital age.

More often than not scrapbooks are thrown away. No-one thinks of them as significant to our cultural heritage. They’re often thought of as just sentimental, nostalgic items of no importance to anyone but their owners. But sometimes scrapbooks are saved by those enthusiastic enough to keep adding to them year after year after year.

One scrapbook compiler has become one of the most important chroniclers of black American heritage, without even having any academic background in history, and we’ll have a look at his life and work today at the start of the UK’s Black History Month. His name was L. S. Alexander Gumby (1885-1961).

Unlike my own scrapbooks, which I never imagined would still be around 40 years later, Alexander Gumby had the deliberate intention of making a permanent, ever-growing, and long-lasting record. His scrapbooks were also more than just a hobby and a collection of clippings, photos and ephemera that he found interesting. They became his life. In today’s digital age he would surely have had a major presence in the blogosphere and web universe.

Gumby began his first scrapbook in 1901 when he was 16, about the same age I was when I started. The subject of his first scrapbook was the recent assassination of President McKinley, but soon his desire came to centre on a record of the lives of African-American people and their contributions to American culture.

By 1904 he had left his native Maryland and had moved to Harlem, New York. Arriving at a very significant time in black American history, the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance, Gumby found himself moving in the same circles as great Harlem figures like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Josephine Baker.

Through the patronage of a stockbroker called Charles W. Newman Gumby was able to expand his scrapbook collection and house it in a studio in Harlem which soon became known as “Gumby’s Bookstore”. This became an important gathering place for members of the Harlem Renaissance and also the lgbt community (Gumby was gay), and all of them helped to expand the scrapbook collection by donating photographs, clippings and autographs. There Gumby hosted talks and meetings, displayed his scrapbooks, and his flamboyant personality made his something of a must-meet for visiting black Americans. He earned the nickname “The Great God Gumby”.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was a huge blow to Gumby’s stockbroker patron, and Gumby’s Bookshop closed down. Everything was sold, except the precious scrapbooks which were stored in a friend’s house.

Gumby continued to compile scrapbooks. Every aspect of black culture and heritage was collected, from slavery to sport (he compiled 7 scrapbooks on black boxers alone).

In 1950 he donated his entire collection to Columbia University. They employed him to help organise and catalogue the scrapbooks, which are now called the Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana.

Gumby never stopped collecting, right up to his death in 1961. In total he left 300 scrapbooks of vital contemporary records of black Africa and historical documents dating back to 1850. They leave a chronicle of black life that lives more than any book. We can immerse ourselves in parts of those scrapbooks online at “Unwritten History: Alexander Gumby’s African America”.

Perhaps we should all start our own scrapbooks. They would include all the things that can’t be put on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever technological version of the world you choose to live in.

For me, I stopped doing scrapbooks over 20 years ago, but I still collect various personal ephemera which are stored in boxes and envelopes. Is it time for a revival in the lost art of scrapbooking? Thanks to Alexander Gumby we have something to inspire us.

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