William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Part I
THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE: THE DORSEY COLLECTION AND THE BLACK PORTRAIT IN THE POPULAR PRESS

Much of black urban history is still murky simply because of the scarcity of records needed to reconstruct it. During the 19th century certainly, blacks as historical actors were scarcely visible to the dominant white population, clearly not in charge of the major political and economic decisions that shaped their lives. Most, too, did not leave the kind of formally written sources, letters, diaries, and reminiscences, of which traditional history is built. But while there are some of the same gaps in the Philadelphia story as in those of other cities, it can be told better than most because of several unique advantages. W. E. B. Du Bois, who published his great study of The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, is only the best known of a series of observers who have traced the black experience from colonial times to the present. But for the raw material of history nothing is more important than the unique collections left by the members of the American Negro Historical Society, above all its custodian William Henry Dorsey. 1

Dorsey was named the Society's "custodian" perhaps because his own contributions were central to it, certainly bigger than those of any other member. Some aspects of his life, and his family's, remain as obscure as those of other and less eminent urban blacks. As much as can be known will be woven, with his neighbors', throughout this book, as part of the occupational, political, religious, and cultural history his legacy has enabled. But its outlines are appropriate here, in the introduction to Part I, as

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