Archival Collections
Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Alexander Gumby collection of Negroiana, 1800-1981 

Creator: 
Gumby, L. S. Alexander, 1885-1961
Phys. Desc: 
88 linear feet (17 boxes 1 oversize folder)
Call Number: 
MS#0527
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Online information

Biographical Note

Born Feb. 1, 1885, in Maryland, Gumby was the son of Evangelist Levi Thomas and Louisa Morris Gumby. In 1901, he and his sister were sent to live with their grandparents and there the young man who loved reading made his first scrapbook at the age of 16 with some old wallpaper and a paste of flour and water. Gumby's first clippings were of President McKinley's assassination in Sept. 1901. He spent the next year at Dover State College in Delaware studying law to fulfill his grandmother's dream for him. But he became impatient and felt his skills were inadequate. He packed his scrapbooks and eventually headed to New York City, where he immediately fell in love with the place that would be his home until his death almost 60 years later. "At once I became a New Yorker in spirit and principle for I found here more freedom of action than I had ever known before," Gumby wrote in his 1951 essay, "The Adventures of My Scrapbook," for the Columbia Library World. Gumby became an enthusiastic fan of theatre and art and "formed the habit" of collecting all the playbills, pictures, and clippings he could find of his favorites. During those early years in New York, Gumby wrote that it seemed "a willingness to change jobs was a mark of a youth's ambition." A friend told him of a job as a waiter at Columbia and there he began his relationships with a number of professors and students. He also clipped "everything I could find" about popular professors and President Nicholas Murry Butler. By 1910, he organized his clippings and began to take his role more seriously. Gumby studied other collections in libraries across the U.S. and Canada, and also began collecting rare book editions and manuscripts with the help of his wealthy friend who was a partner in a Wall Street firm. And he met with other collectors like Arturo Schomburg. At the same time, Gumby took a variety of other jobs to help sustain his passion. He became, for instance, the personal butler of a wealthy banker in the same area now known as Riverdale's Wave Hill. Gumby also was a founding member of the Southern Utopia Fraternity, a group organized for "young men from the South who came to New York seeking a larger experience." Soon he became better known more for his collection of rare editions than for his scrapbooks and he opened the Gumby Book Studio at 2144 Fifth Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets in Harlem. The historian lined his studio with books and continued clipping and pasting historic documents in his scrapbooks. Gumby's Studio grew so popular that it became a gathering place for many artists, actors, musicians, intellectuals, gays and lesbians of the Harlem Renaissance. Gumby called it the first "unpremeditated interracial movement in Harlem." Meanwhile, Gumby's reputation as "The Count" and "Mr. Scrapbook" also continued to grow and he was asked to exhibit his collections in cities along the East Coast, earning him a listing in the 1922 edition of the Private Book Collectors' Who's Who. But by the Crash of 1929, Gumby's wealthy friend lost millions and the Studio lost support of its regulars. The collapse took such a toll on Gumby that he was forced to give up the Studio, sell many of his editions, and store his scrapbooks in the cellar of an acquaintance's house. "The loss of my studio and fatigue from overwork," he wrote, sent Gumby first to Riverside Hospital in the Bronx and then to Randall's Island Hospital where he spent the next four years. In both hospitals, though, he continued collecting newspaper articles (some about his own hospitalization), photographs of visiting friends, and get well cards, all of which are included in his six autobiographical scrapbooks. When he was released in 1934, Gumby set about retrieving his collections and restoring their condition, all the time adding more and more clippings, autographs and other documents. By 1950 he gave his collection to Columbia and in 1951, the University hired him for eight months to organize the materials. Alexander Gumby considered his "History of the Negro in Scrapbook" more than a hobby. He wrote that, "The collection could well be called 'The Unwritten History.'" Gumby concentrated on African American history primarily because, "There are so many surprising and startling historical events pertaining to, or relating to the American Negro that are not recorded in the Standard Histories, dictionaries and school text-books, or if so, they are shaded so that they sound like a Ripley's 'Believe It or Not.' " From "Black History Remains Alive in Alexander Gumby's Popular Scrapbooks" By Jo Kadlecek. Columbia News. Published: Feb 18, 2002.

Scope and Contents

A collection concerned with the various phases of black life in America, containing clippings, pamphlets, photographs, pictures, extracts from periodicals, and a representative group of approximately 350 letters, signatures, manuscripts, and documents. Among the letters are several each from Countee Cullen, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Dumas, fils, William Lloyd Garrison, Claude McKay, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Mencken, William Pickens, Albert A. Smith, and Booker T. Washington. Also, eighteen slavery documents. Most of the material is mounted in 161 scrapbooks or groups of folio leaves. The clippings are from both general and specialized newspapers and magazines ranging in date from 1850 to 1960, however the majority of the material falls between 1910 and 1950. Whole volumes are devoted to major figures such as Joe Louis, Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker. Four scrapbooks contain signatures, signed photographs, and letters from a great variety of individuals. Among the unnumbered volumes of personal scrapbooks there are six volumes labeled "Gumby's Autobiography" containing personal letters, calling cards, photographs, post cards, and other printed material relating to Gumby's life.