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Black History Remains Alive in Alexander Gumby's Popular Scrapbooks

By Jo Kadlecek

Historic clippings like this filled Alexander Gumby's scrapbooks and are available in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library

On Dec. 8, 1934, The New York Amsterdam News reported that Colonel Hubert Julian had a "narrow escape from death" when the engines of his Moth plane stalled during a fierce storm above the English Channel. Julian, known as Harlem's 'Black Eagle' for his aviation savvy and charismatic personality, managed to fly the battered plane through giant hailstones to safety.

The Colonel was on a return trip across the channel, which he had flown earlier to claim the honor of "being the first Negro aviator to land a plane at LeBourget Field." When he arrived back in Harlem with a suitcase full of clippings from the foreign press to prove his near death experience, it was the first time the Black Eagle had no immediate plans for another "long distance hop."

The Colonel's story is just one of hundreds carefully clipped and pasted in oversized scrapbooks by self-appointed culture-keeper and Harlem resident, L.S. Alexander Gumby. His 300 scrapbooks contain everything from newspaper stories and magazine articles to autographs, letters, photos, playbills and slave documents, all of which record primarily the "History of the Negro from 1850 to 1960." And as a result of his careful attention to chronicling the subjects of interest to him, the Gumby file, given to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Butler Library in 1950, has become what Columbia librarians call one of the most popular files in the archives.

For the past 50 years, the Gumby File has been used "all the time" by scholars, biographers, historians, and documentarians researching some specific aspect of African American heritage, according to file curator Bernard Crystal. Anyone can request access to the file, he said, as long as they prove "scholarly intent." Most research for magazine or newspaper articles, or biographers trace the history and images of individuals, Crystal said. For instance, one writer was particularly interested in the boxer Joe Louis and spent weeks scouring over the eight volumes Gumby devoted to the fighter. Others have found original autographed photos, stories and letters from artists like Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie and even a 1936 playbill from the Shubert Theatre for a production of "At Home Abroad," that reads, "To Mr. Scrapbook, all the best, Ethel Waters."

The file also contains 18 slave documents, as well as letters and autographs of noted figures such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Father Divine, W.E.B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey. Because the scrapbooks have now been converted to microfilm, articles, artwork, even envelopes addressed to Gumby, can be photocopied.

In addition to profiling "Prominent Negroes," Gumby organized his scrapbooks into particular themes such as Ethiopia, football, inter-marriage of Negroes and Whites, lynchings and race riots, Negro business, labor and newspapers, Protestantism, and radio and television. Gumby even included specific announcements relevant to Columbia, like the Feb. 25, 1938, review of pianist/composer Luke Theodore Upshure's concert on campus.

L.S. Alexander Gumby

What makes the collection unique from others on black history is that "Gumby clipped things that weren't necessarily from the mainstream but were unique to the black community," Crystal said, who remembers meeting Gumby in 1961, only months before his death, when he came to the library to drop off more clippings.

Gumby's own story is almost as interesting as the pieces he collected. 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.' "

Certainly, Gumby's life-long commitment to recording the history of African Americans continues to provide invaluable research today.

Published: Feb 18, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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