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Scattered and Fugitive Things

Scattered and Fugitive Things

How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History

Laura E. Helton
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During the first half of the twentieth century, a group of collectors and creators dedicated themselves to documenting the history of African American life. At a time when dominant institutions cast doubt on the value or even the idea of Black history, these bibliophiles, scrapbookers, and librarians created an enduring set of African diasporic archives. In building these institutions and amassing abundant archival material, they also reshaped Black public culture, animating inquiry into the nature and meaning of Black history.

Scattered and Fugitive Things tells the stories of these Black collectors, traveling from the parlors of the urban north to HBCU reading rooms and branch libraries in the Jim Crow south. Laura E. Helton chronicles the work of six key figures: bibliophile Arturo Schomburg, scrapbook maker Alexander Gumby, librarians Virginia Lee and Vivian Harsh, curator Dorothy Porter, and historian L. D. Reddick. Drawing on overlooked sources such as book lists and card catalogs, she reveals the risks collectors took to create Black archives. This book also explores the social life of collecting, highlighting the communities that used these collections from the South Side of Chicago to Roanoke, Virginia. In each case, Helton argues, archiving was alive in the present, a site of intellectual experiment, creative abundance, and political possibility. Offering new ways to understand Black intellectual and literary history, Scattered and Fugitive Things reveals Black collecting as a radical critical tradition that reimagines past, present, and future.


Laura E. Helton is an assistant professor of English and history at the University of Delaware. She is a coeditor of the digital humanities project "Remaking the World of Arturo Schomburg."


  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publish Date: April 16, 2024
  • Pages: 328
  • Dimensions: 6.14 X 9.21 X 0.73 inches | 1.11 pounds
  • Language: English
  • Type: Paperback
  • EAN/UPC: 9780231212755
  • BISAC Categories: United States - 20th Century, Library & Information Science - Archives & Special Libraries, American - African American, Ethnic Studies - African American Studies
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