Dorothy Porter Wesley was a librarian and the founding curator at Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. She needs to be celebrated during Black History Month because she challenged the racial bias in the Dewey Decimal System and her work was the foundation for what became Black Studies.
Dorothy Burnett was born in Virginia in 1905. When she was 23, she received a B.A. from Howard University, an historically black college. She moved to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where she became acquainted with some of the movement’s biggest names, many of whom later connected her with publishers from around the world. She studied at Columbia University, earning a B.S. in library science in 1931 and an M.S. in library science in 1932. She was the first African American to graduate from Columbia’s library school. She married James A. Porter (1929-1970) and Charles H. Wesley (1979-1987). She passed away in 1995.
In 1930, the Howard University president appointed her to organize and administer a Library of Negro Life and History, incorporating 3,000 titles presented to the university in 1914 by Jesse Moorland. In 1946, she incorporated the university’s purchase of the Arthur Spingarn Collection. These collections, combined with books she collected from publishers from around the world (often getting the books donated), made Porter Wesley instrumental in creating the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center – one of the world’s best collection of library materials for Black/Africana history and culture.
According to the Smithsonian, Porter Wesley “was concerned about assigning value to the materials she collected – their intellectual and political value, certainly, but also their monetary value, since at the time other libraries had no expertise in pricing works by black authors. When Spingarn agreed to sell his collection to Howard, the university’s treasurer insisted that it be appraised externally. Since he did not want to rely on her assessment, she turned to the Library of Congress’s appraiser. The appraiser took one look and said, ‘I cannot evaluate the collection. I do not know anything about black books. Will you write the report? . . . I’ll send it back to the treasurer.’ The treasurer, thinking it the work of a white colleague, accepted it.”
In addition to helping build such an impressive collection, Porter Wesley developed a wide variety of research tools and bibliographies based on her vast knowledge in the field that would eventually become known as Black Studies. Also, starting with ideas from four predecessors, she helped develop a new catalog system called the “Black Authors Index.” All of the libraries that Porter Wesley consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization. In many white libraries, every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.” In Porter Wesley’s system, the books were classified by genre and author in order to highlight the foundational role of black people in all subject areas. The subject areas she chose are art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion.
Porter Wesley’s intent was not only to decolonize book collections and cataloging systems, but to introduce black authors to students. She was celebrating black culture, and inspiring students to do the same.
“The only rewarding thing for me is to bring to light information that no one knows. What’s the point of rehashing the same old thing?” – Dorothy Porter Wesley
The Smithsonian said that Porter Wesley “must be acknowledged for her efforts to address the marginalization of writing by and about black people through her revision of the Dewey system as well as for her promotion of those writings though a collection at an institution dedicated to highlighting its value by showing the centrality of that knowledge to all fields. Porter’s groundbreaking work provides a crucial backdrop for the work of contemporary scholars who explore the after-effects of the segregation of knowledge through projects that decolonize, repatriate, and redefine historical archives.”
In addition to her work as a librarian, she published numerous bibliographies and one anthology.
Porter Wesley’s contributions have been recognized in many ways:
- The Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for research in Latin American literature (1944)
- Ford Foundation consultant to the National Library in Lagos, Nigeria (1962-64)
- Attended the 1st International Congress of Africanists in Accra, Ghana.
- Ford Foundation study and travel grant which took her to Scotland, Ireland, England and Italy (1973)
- The Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard University (1974)
- The Conover-Porter Award was established – the most prestigious award for published works of bibliography or reference on Africa (1980)
- Fellowship from the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University (1989)
- Moorland-Spingarn Research Center commenced the annual Dorothy Porter Wesley Lecture Series (1989)
- The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Charles Frankel Award, presented by President Bill Clinton (1994)
- Honorary Ph.D. degrees from Susquehanna University (1971), Syracuse University (1989), and Radcliffe College (1990)