Major Collection of Black Poems, Books Arrive at LSU

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – LSU has obtained one of the nation’s largest collections of African-American poetry, including a book once owned by Frederick Douglass and a collection of works by Pulitzer Prize-winning Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950.

The collection, assembled by collector and book dealer Wyatt Houston Day, includes more than 800 works from the 18th century, from the Harlem Renaissance to the present day. It will be available to the public at the Hill Memorial Library once it has been properly cataloged and preserved.

LSU Libraries have many records that talk about African Americans, from manuscripts to plantation records, said John Miles, curator of books for special collections. But the new collections are a way for black voices to tell their own stories.

“What really excites me is that it’s really a symbol of our dedication to incorporating African American and Black voices speaking out into the collection,” Miles said.

Mona Lisa Saloy, Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate, views the new collection as part of a larger effort to remember and reflect on black poetry — and what it says about the state’s past.

Saloy was recently in Baton Rouge for a poetry reading and book signing at a 21st anniversary commemoration of the Southern University Museum of Art. She spoke about her ties to Louisiana, being named Poet Laureate, and the importance of preserving African-American poetry.

“A lot of black poets have been abandoned due to time or death or moved to another part of the country or even out of the country,” she said. “So to have a huge collection of a variety of black poets is exceptional and there are a lot of poetry books that are out of print so it will be invaluable to anyone who loves poetry, especially black poetry.”

Saloy said she was surprised to learn of her Poet Laureate nomination because of the subject matter of much of her work.

“It’s a great honor and something I thought would never happen because my work is very dark and unapologetic,” she said. “I celebrate our traditions because I am a folklorist.

A former LSU student and professor, Saloy said she was thrilled the Special Collections Library could obtain such valuable items for the black experience she used to grow up with in New Orleans.

“I was brought up reading black poetry because that was the voice of revolution in the 1960s, and so as a young person who would come in and hear that, I was thrilled to hear our stories because it certainly wasn’t taught in schools during Jim Corbeau,” she says. “I am the last of the Jim Crow generation and so it was an honor to pass that on, and now to be awarded the State of Louisiana as Poet Laureate is indeed a great award.”

Saloy expressed gratitude to LSU Libraries and African American poets of the past for helping to protect the authentic writing experience of African Americans from the 18th century to the present day.

“These black voices are our culture and our history, so all literature – but especially poetry, because it is often passed on by word of mouth, is written and then recorded so that we can review who we were internally,” he said. she stated. “Our expression, how we celebrated life, how we mourned life. Poetry is human history and it is what happens between important dates of events, it gives you insight into people’s lives and traditions.

Miles said LSU Libraries feels the same way about protecting these works and possibly growing the Special Collections Project in the future.

“It’s just the start of a bigger project, it’s not a closed collection,” Miles said. “We’ll keep adding to it, and it’ll be my job to make sure we get those Louisiana-specific authors here.” I’m really excited to see how it’s being used in classrooms as well as by faculty members who may also start using it as a research collection.

Appraised in September by antique dealer Henry Wessells of James Cummins Booksellers in New York, the Day collection is valued at $612,940. LSU purchased pieces from the collection, but Day donated some as well.

Miles said it all started when he contacted Day to purchase a single book.

“One thing led to another, we started talking and he told me about another thing that I might be interested in involving the collection,” Miles said. “The conversation went from there and he had a few other institutional offers, but he finally decided it would be better here with us.”

According to Miles, Day has no connection to LSU and just wanted his collection of items to have a single institutional home.

“The Wyatt Houston Day Collection complements existing literary holdings at LSU, but it also means a huge boost to the representation of works by writers who have been historically marginalized,” said LSU Libraries Dean Stanley Wilder in a statement. “Acquiring this collection is a significant contribution to LSU’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Colin L. Johnson