Janet Sims-Wood

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Biography] There was once a notion that black people had no meaningful history. It’s a notion Dorothy Porter Wesley spent her entire career debunking. Through her 43 years at Howard University, where she helped create the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, her own publishing endeavors and collecting, and her unfettered support of the researchers she encountered, Wesley devoted her entire life to the preservation of black history.

Her career was once summed up as that of a “historical detective”, and the characterization is apt. As Dr. Janet Sims-Wood writes in her excellent study, Dorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History (The History Press, 2014) she was unrelenting in her mission: “To supplement her meager acquisitions budget, Porter appealed to faculty to donate manuscripts of their published works as well as any letters from noted individuals. [...] she appealed to publishers, authors and friends who were collectors to donate their materials. She also rummaged through the attics and basements of recently deceased persons to acquire materials.” The portrait that emerges is that of an indefatigable, iconic archivist, a researcher’s dream.

But, beyond the life, there is the legacy. A mighty legacy, as Sims-Wood establishes. Sims-Wood is an oral historian and she assembles here an interesting chorus of voices: those who knew Dorothy Porter Wesley, who worked with her, who watched her, whose lives and careers were impacted by her.

Timed to coincide with the centenary of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Sims-Wood’s book is an important reminder of how much the preservation of history relies upon individuals. And, also, what a significant impact one person can have.

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