Dorothy Porter Wesley Preserver of Black History: May 25, 1905 - December 17, 1995

By Battle, Thomas C. | Black Issues in Higher Education, January 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Dorothy Porter Wesley Preserver of Black History: May 25, 1905 - December 17, 1995


Battle, Thomas C., Black Issues in Higher Education


DOROTHY Porter Wesley Preserver of Black History: May 25, 1905-December. 17, 1995

The extraordinary career of Dorothy Porter Wesley spanned sixty-five years, from her appointment in 1930 as librarian at Howard University's nascent Moorland Foundation, a Library of Negro Life, until her death on December 17, 1995. Throughout this period she remained the quintessential librarian -- a collector and dispenser of knowledge. She was an elder in the community of scholars who had experienced the continuum that is history and was a vast reservoir of wisdom, which she imparted to successive generations of students of Black history and culture.

Dorothy Louise Burnett Porter Wesley was born in Warrenton, Virginia, on May 25, 1905, and grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, where her father was a physician. She completed her early education there before enrolling in the Miner Normal School and Howard University in Washington, D.C., from which she was graduated in 1928. In 1932 she received a master's degree in library science from Columbia University, the first African American to do so.

Porter Wesley once remarked that "Too much of our heritage, until recently, has been lost because there were not enough collectors among us." Fortunately for those of us who are and have been involved in Black history, one of those collectors was Dr. Porter Wesley. Beginning in 1930 and continuing for more than four decades, Dr. Porter Wesley devoted her life to identifying and acquiring for Howard University many thousands of books, newspapers, journals and other materials which provided the documentation of the Black experience in Africa, the Americas and other parts of the world.

While Dr. Jessee E. Moorland receives the well-earned acknowledgement of having provided at Howard University a foundation for historical research on people of African descent, it is Dorothy Porter Wesley who deserves the credit for transforming the potential of Moorland's gift and other related material into a repository widely hailed as one of the very best at the time of her retirement in 1973. Scholars and librarians continue to marvel at the success she was able to achieve under often difficult circumstances. All that the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center is today is a result of the groundwork laid by her.

In 1973, Letitia Woods Brown said Porter Wesley "has the broadest understanding of Black bibliography of anyone living. If it has been written or even spoken about, Dorothy Porter knows." A few years earlier, Faith Berry described her in an article on Black archives as "a human encyclopedia who can tell you everything about Negro life and history that's ever been printed or unprinted." While caution tells us that such accolades must be tempered with reality, experience tells us that neither writer greatly exaggerated the depth and breadth of Dr. Porter Wesley's prodigious knowledge of Black history and culture.

In 1969, Dr. Porter Wesley wrote that "the wise accumulation of books and documents by the early great bibliophiles...was doubtless the seed of a tremendous harvest. But if we are not to be overwhelmed by its very richness and excess in the domain of Black studies, it must be met with a steady and dedicated and confident librarianship as much as with appreciative, systematic, and productive exploitation by knowledgeable and competent scholars. In these critical times we can hardly afford to neglect the advantages of such an intellectual and practical partnership."

Not only did Dr. Porter Wesley promote such partnership, but she was long the embodiment of the scholar-librarian. …

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