Oct. 24, 1994
President Bill Clinton awarded Dorothy Porter Wesley the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Charles Frankel Award for her service as a Black librarian, bibliographer, researcher and curator.
The first Black woman to complete her graduate studies at Columbia University, she joined the Howard University library staff in 1928. With no budget and almost no staff, she overcame sexism and other barriers to transform the Library of Negro Life and History, with a few thousand titles, into a world-class research center with more than 180,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts and other materials, which scholars from around the globe came to visit.
She recalled that work: “I went around the (Howard) library and pulled out every relevant book I could find – the history of slavery, Black poets – for the collection. Over the years, the main thing I had to do was beg – from publishers, authors, families. Sometimes it meant being there just after the funeral director took out the bodies and saying, ‘You want all this junk in the basement?’”
Before she died in 1995 at the age of 91, Howard named the reading room in its library after her, and historian Benjamin Quarles declared, “Without exaggeration, there hasn’t been a major black history book in the last 30 years in which the author hasn’t acknowledged Mrs. Porter’s help.”
A portrait of her hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
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