Harsh History: A Gem of Our Libraries

Vivian Harsh
Vivian Harsh

The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, housed in Chicago’s Carter G. Woodson Library, is an invaluable display of the flowering of Black history and culture within a Northern, urban environment galvanized by the energy of hundreds of thousands of post-war Black migrants from the South. This era of the 1940’s and 1950’s followed the period of American history bracketed as the “Harlem Renaissance,”—a dozen years or so in which productivity of Black art and literature soared to unprecedented heights.

The Harsh Collection holds such national treasures as the Sengstacke family papers as well as those of Frances Minor, Timuel Black and Etta Moten Barnett. With its rare photographs, articles and other artifacts which document just how a parallel movement took place and shape less than 1000 miles from Harlem, though without the same degree of historical and critical hoopla, Harsh’s collection and her rather unsung life (at least up until recently) raise interesting questions:

  • To what extent is the consecration of a singular period as a  “Movement” or a “Renaissance” an establishment which is gendered, neglecting to consider other such noteworthy moments in which Black women stood at the helm of progress?
  • Why have the unique contributions of women been negated with regards to study of African-American cultural movements, and how much is the historical and critical emphasis on the traditionally-lauded Harlem Renaissance predicated upon the illusion of powerful “Race Men” (as well as race-sympathetic white people) taking the reigns to influence the direction of their race?

Women In Power

What I found most startling and pleasantly surprising about the Harsh Collection was the sheer number of women I observed as being directly at the center of establishing The George Cleveland Hall Branch Library, nestled within the richly-populated Black migrant neighborhood of Bronzeville, as an anchoring institution devoted to the study of Black history, letters and progress. Established in 1932 amidst the Depression, the Hall Branch Library on Chicago’s Southside emerged as a sanctuary devoted to the cultivation of Black minds and spirits, an intellectual incubator in which the fields of arts and letters served to remind Black people of just how far they had come. More importantly, it was a critical think-tank to explore just where the race was going.

Harsh Collection
The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection can be found at 9525 S. Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60628.

In addition to Harsh’s tireless efforts to collect Black books and manuscripts, she directed the Library towards holding forums, events, readings, discussions and conferences which were open to the surrounding public. The Library appears to have avoided the class stratification and elitist pitfalls of similar documented historical occurrences, being a public space in which Black Chicagoans of all backgrounds could enter into shared dialogue with cultural leaders. A photograph depicting a “Meeting of the Book Review and Lecture Forum Planning Committee” tells more of this marvelous tale; of the 13 committee members pictured at the meeting, one of which is Chief Librarian Harsh herself, 9 are women and only 3 are men.

Given Black women’s newfound opportunities in the workplace and changing domestic roles on the national landscape, it seems only natural that progress of the Black female collective would seep into showing itself in the local cultural arenas as well. Black women, with help from Black men of course, were the true leaders of Chicago’s Renaissance according to what the Harsh Collection has to show us.

It is worth noting that Harsh was appointed to the coveted position as Head Librarian at the George Hall Branch in 1932 by Carl Roden, who began with the Chicago Public Libraries in 1886 and served as Chief Librarian from 1918-1950. This appointment exemplifies the role White people continued to play in the charting and production of Black history and culture, a claim certainly applied to such movements as the Harlem Renaissance. Yet it is astounding to see what Harsh, a Black woman, managed to accomplish with the opportunity.

Harsh carried out her vision by privileging “equality of the sexes” throughout the programs and offerings of the Library. The integration of men with women, and indeed women’s outnumbering of men, in a photograph depicting a 1935 gathering of members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) shows how the arts and letters movement which flowered in Chicago was on in which women and men could partake in with a shared agenda. This tone of the movement is a sharp contrast to such companion eras in Black American cultural history as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement—both canonized periods in which the contributions of Black women are only now being more closely studied, acknowledged and analyzed.

What distinguishes the “movement” the Hall Branch Library seems to have ignited is what I perceived to be a privileging of Black women over all men, save for the collection’s credible efforts towards helping Blacks deal with the War, in artistic directions and content. Esteemed, established Black female leaders such as Mary Church Terrell and new, promising voices such as Margaret Walker were among the many who can be traced as having appeared at the Library. Terrell was the President of the National Council of Colored Women when she visited the Library for Negro History Week in 1941, and a photograph shows her flanked by a beaming group of women, including Harsh herself, after a talk in which Terrell read from her just-released, sweepingly and aptly-titled memoir A Colored Woman in a White World.

One wonders if the conversation held that day opened out into discussion of being a colored woman in both a White and a man’s world. Though Walker’s visits appear to have come with a softer, less-heavy theme (she discussed her review of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s A Conversation at Midnight) on March 16, 1938, she did read poems which would appear 4 years later in For My People—and certainly verse which served as homage to the race and its future course incited serious discussion among participants. In a much later program developed as a “Fun at Maturity” group, a 1953 “Negro Poetry” event hosted poet Margaret Danner Cunningham, whose talk was to “trace the development of this poetry from the beginning to the present day poets and their work.”

The presence of these women and the occurrences of their visits suggests that here, Black women were able to insert the unique vocabulary of their experience into the dialogue for progress. This insertion would take place in arenas in which Black men were sometimes, but often not, even present. This self-validation on the part of Black women, for themselves and by themselves, is an occurrence which symbolized the sweeping changes occurring in the Black female national consciousness in the 1940’s and 50’s. They had graduated from becoming followers into becoming leaders.

And Men Too…

Harsh and Wright
Harsh and Richard Wright

This is not to say that Harsh at all neglected Black men or the Negro’s vast, collective African heritage. The collection houses a program announcing the Library’s special events and activities for Negro History Week (now Black History Month), which would begin on February 8, 1936. Rich, brown abstract figures and puzzling geometric lines set against a sandstone beige-background compose the cover’s earth-toned design. The center of this design appears to be a seated Black male figure, shrouded by two statuesque female figures—one whose negative space is filled in with brown and another whose negative space is left open and light—standing alongside him. The man is holding a flame in one hand, and a majestic book in the other.

The message inherent in the design of unification across gender and national lines, which relies heavily upon an African aesthetic, suggests the concentration of Black women directors and artists of this movement was not a deliberate slight to the whole of the race. The emphasis on history was carried out with the agenda of increasing consciousness of a shared African past, from which Black Americans had been displaced only to be displaced again—this time on their own terms as they sought the promising opportunities of the North.

The Hall Branch offered such events towards this goal as a free lecture and workshop series in 1949 in which the history of Blacks was researched and presented by local reverends, provoking the need to further explore the role the Black church played in feeding into this movement and others; such topics considered were Reconstruction, the 41st and 42nd Congress, Civil War, Negroes in American Colonization and Africa Yesterday and Today. Also, Black men were portrayed as playing a significant role in the providing cultural momentum in the Library as well, notably through featuring such collectives as the “Players of the WMAQ.” The Players appeared at the Library on February 14, 1949, in another Negro History Week event. The players included legendary Black history radio script drama writer (for the show Destination Freedom) Richard Durham, jazz musician Oscar Brown, Jr. and famous broadcaster and journalist Studs Terkel. Harsh’s efforts were expansive, in the Library’s steering, largely by Black women, of the Black Chicagoans whom were its constituency towards a fuller identity characterized by the opportunity for inclusive entrance into the broader national landscape, and that entrance’s enormous potential to change the face of that landscape.

It is worth pondering the extent to which feminine influence behind the collection positively contributed to the Chicago Renaissance being a more open and inclusive movement. This was a positive, affirming circumstance for Black women and thus unfortunately relegated it to being dismissed and noticed by critical and historical approaches which have only recently begun to mine for Black women’s arguably unprecedented role in changing America after Emancipation. The joyous offerings of the Vivian G. Harsh collection are a testament to the ability of Black women to enact their own visions and missions, and to insure that their remarkable achievements are well-documented for future generations.

For more information, visit the Vivian G. Harsh Society at www.HarshSociety.org.

(all images courtesy of the Vivian G. Harsh Society)

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