Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 25
Reading and Race Pride
The Literary Activism of Black Clubwomen

Elizabeth McHenry

.  .  .

In a 1925 issue of Publishers’ Weekly, Mary White Ovington reported the activities of a woman named Kathryn Johnson, who began her life as an “itinerant bookseller” after returning from a post abroad with the Young Men’s Christian Association during World War I. Selling books out of the back seat of a little Ford coupe, Johnson had covered ten states and some 25,000 miles in two and a half years. She had sold more than 5,000 volumes of books, 100 volumes at a time, all she could fit in the back seat of the car. While door-to-door booksellers were not uncommon in the 1920s, Ovington’s amazement is clear regarding this particular bookseller, whose sales pitch she described as “quite unlike any book agent’s that I had ever heard.” This story was newsworthy because Johnson was a black woman and she traveled the back roads of the north- and southeastern United States selling books by and about African Americans to an exclusively African American clientele. Although she sold books individually, she called her offerings a “Two Foot Book Shelf.” “Two feet of books,” her sales pitch proclaimed, “that you and all the colored people ought to read.” Included in that collection were books by W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, Benjamin Brawley, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Silas X. Floyd. “[M]y buyers don’t want fiction,” she told Ovington. “They look at such a book, say ‘it’s only a story,’ and put it down. They want to spend their earnings for reality.”

Ovington accompanied Johnson on one of her sales trips, during which a minister allowed Johnson ten minutes to address his congregation at the end of a Sunday service. She “prayed that [Johnson] might not be disappointed if she only sold a book or two.” In fact, Johnson was “at once surrounded by people,” taking orders for seventy books that day. “Was this [an] exceptional [day]?” Ovington asked, voicing her disbelief. “No,” replied Johnson. “It was very good but not exceptional.” When told by Ovington that she could “make her fortune as a regular book agent,” Johnson underscored the distinction between her own efforts and the mere practice of peddling books. “I’m not first of all selling books,” she said. “I am first of all creating a desire for reading.” Recounting the

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