“Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.
Sometimes when we are doing our initial sort of the collections we are working with we find boxes that aren’t organized with as much detail as we might like, and that was the case with most of the boxes in the Undine Smith Moore collection. It’s not completely accurate to describe it as “like someone swept their arm across a desktop, depositing anything in their path into a cardboard box,” but it isn’t far off, either. The most charitable thing one could say is, “things were mostly in folders.”
So the first step Amber, Tricia, and I took was to go through the boxes to get a general sense of what was in each box and ascertain whether there was any rhyme or reason to the way things were packed. Moore, one of the 20th century’s most notable composers, left a trove of manuscript pages and drafts of her compositions. Inside the boxes were scrapbooks, photo albums, letters, diaries, writings, and audio recordings; programs from across the country chart the nationwide performances of her Pulitzer Prize-nominated work Scenes From the Life of a Martyr. The boxes might not be organized, but they’re full of interesting materials.
As I was looking through one of the boxes I came across a tattered, weather beaten book with deckled pages, a brown cover, and blue binding that was broken and torn in a few places. With no title to go on, I assumed this was one of the many diaries Moore left in this collection, but when I opened it up I was surprised to find a book of poetry. By chance I opened the book to “Harlem Night Song,” a Langston Hughes poem I remember from a high school English class. Gingerly flipping to the book’s title page confirmed that it was The Weary Blues, Hughes’ first collection of poetry, published by Knopf in 1926. The title page only had one copyright notice and no indication that it was a second of third edition. A first edition of the poetry from a titan of the Harlem Renaissance is exciting enough, but as I was closing the book I noticed an inscription on the inside of the cover. It is addressed to Alston Burleigh, a music professor at Virginia State University (the same school where Moore taught for forty-five years), and reads:
That’s what the Blues singers say.
Singing minor melodies