Black History Thriving at University Presses

By Stewart, Rhonda | The Crisis, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Black History Thriving at University Presses

Stewart, Rhonda, The Crisis


Each February, to mark Black History Month, commercial publishers offer new books by and about African Americans. Most of their titles focus on familiar figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. University presses, meanwhile, keep Black history alive year-round and shine light into more obscure corners of the African American experience.

"If it's going to further debate or bring knowledge to the forefront that's been covered up, that's what we see as our role," says Sian Hunter, an editor at the University of North Carolina Press who acquires books in the field of African American studies.

Hunter isn't exaggerating when she says that publishing works by and about African Americans has been part of the press' mission since day one. One of the oldest university presses in the country, UNC was founded 81 years ago. In 1943, the press published noted historian John Hope Franklin's first book, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. By 1950, UNC Press had already published nearly 50 Black history titles.

According to Hunter, the efforts of two White men established the UNC Press' early dominance in publishing Black history titles. Decades before Black studies became a formal field of academic study, Howard Odum and William T. Couch, published critiques of the South's racial history. Odum, then-chairman of the University of North Carolina's sociology department and one of the founders of the press, had a keen interest in class and race issues. Couch, who was director of the press for 13 years, looked to publish books that would start a candid conversation about race, the one thing many Southerners preferred not to talk about.

University presses are not-for-profit book publishers that are extensions of parent academic institutions. Most came into being as a means to disseminate the scholarly work being produced at the universities. They primarily publish books of significant scholarly and intellectual merit, but they do publish some general interest titles.

The presses say they maintain a commitment to Black history titles because there is a steady market for them. Many of these books take readers into previously unknown worlds as in Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Duke University Press), a detailed history of Black book clubs founded after the Civil War by Elizabeth McHenry, and Diane Batts Morrow's Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828-1860 (University of North Carolina Press), which tells the story of the first community of Black Catholic nuns in the United States.

University presses also rescue important literary works and reissue out-of-print titles. Last year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Langsten Hughes, The University of Missouri Press began publishing a projected 17-volume series, The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Oxford University Press has republished the 1951 book, Chariots in the Sky: A Novel of the Jubilee Singers by Arna Bontemps, another Harlem Renaissance figure. Though it is a work of fiction, the book reflects the true story of the Fisk University singers.

Academic publishers select books for publication that are distinctive from those offered by trade publishers' on well-covered subjects such as civil rights.

Seetha Srinivasan, director of University Press of Mississippi, cites two books in this vein. One is a recently published book about a figure that Srinivasan describes as a foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust by Mary Stanton tells the little-known story of Bill Moore, a White postal worker who was shot in 1963 while trying to hand-deliver an appeal for racial tolerance to Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. The other is Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Changed Television, which will be published next spring. The book tells the story of a 1964 court case challenging a segregated television station in Jackson, Miss. …

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