Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature
Richard Wright and Vivian G. Harsh at the Hall Branch
The largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest, the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature contains a wealth of precious documentation of the black experience. The collection places a strong focus on African American history in Illinois.
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Woodson Regional Library
9525 S. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60628
Phone: (312) 745-2080
Monday through Thursday: 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Sunday: 1 p.m. - 5 p.m.
Among the most significant and unique materials at the Harsh Research Collection are its manuscript holdings. Other holdings include:
- 70,000 books, many of them rare
- 500 periodical titles, current and retrospective
- More than 100 microfilm research collections, totaling about 5,000 reels, bringing together the most significant primary source materials from other black studies research collections across the country.
Vivian G. Harsh
Vivian G. Harsh (1890-1960), the first black librarian in the Chicago Public Library system, was named head of the Hall branch in 1932. She immediately began establishing a “Special Negro Collection,” which became an integral part of the branch’s community service. While developing this collection as a research and programming center for Chicago’s community of black scholars and activists, Harsh won the support and assistance of such leaders and writers as Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes and Horace Cayton.
Assisted by the pioneering black children’s librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins, the collection became an extraordinary meeting place that helped develop the work of many black thinkers in the Bronzeville era of the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1975 the collection was moved to the newly opened Woodson Regional Library, where sculptor Richard Hunt created the massive bronze depiction of “Jacob’s Ladder” for its central atrium.
This space later became inadequate to house the growing volume of black history materials held in the Harsh Research Collection. In 1992, land adjacent to the Woodson Regional Library was purchased, and a new wing was added in 1998, bringing the total square footage to 25,000. The refurbished and expanded Harsh Research Collection opened on January 25, 1999.
The Harsh Research Collection holds original manuscripts by Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. In addition, it is the repository for the papers of Horace Cayton, Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Timuel Black, the Reverends Addie and Claude Wyatt, and the Robert S. Abbott-John H. Sengstacke families, among others.
Robert S. Abbott and John H. Sengstacke
Robert S. Abbott-John H. Sengstacke Family Papers
Robert S. Abbott founded the Chicago Defender in 1905; his nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took over the family’s newspapers on Abbott’s death in 1940. The papers trace the Abbott-Sengstacke family history from the mid-19th century in Georgia through Abbott’s move to Chicago and creation of a journalistic empire, to the death of Sengstacke in 1997. The papers are arranged in three superseries: Robert Abbott, John Sengstacke and Myrtle Sengstacke. Extensive documentation of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Michigan Chronicle, Provident Hospital and the political history of Chicago is included. The papers feature correspondence, manuscripts, organizational and subject research files, biographical materials, programs, clippings and memorabilia. A large collection of photographs is being processed and will be available for researchers at a later date.
Timuel D. Black, Jr. Papers
Professor Emeritus at City Colleges of Chicago, Timuel Black is a prominent historian, author, human rights activist and expert on Chicago’s African American history. During the 1960s, he was president of the Negro American Labor Council, Chicago Chapter and organizer of Chicago participation in the 1963 March on Washington. Black was active in more than 100 organizations over seven decades, and the collection includes extensive organizational files, correspondence, manuscripts, subject files, oral histories, audiovisual materials, photographs and memorabilia. Additional papers relating to the life and work of his son, Timuel Kerrigan Black (1963-1993), were accessioned in 2007.
Ben Burns Collection
At Johnson Publishing Company, Ben Burns was executive editor of Ebony and Negro Digest magazines. He was later editor of Sepia magazine. The papers center on Burns’ career in journalism and his authorship of a memoir, Nitty Gritty. The collection consists of correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, clippings, memorabilia and Burns’ personal library.
The Illinois Writers Project: “Negro in Illinois” Papers
This Illinois Writers Project study of the African American experience in Illinois from 1779 to 1942 consists of draft chapters, research notes, newspaper extracts, oral history transcripts and draft essays. All the work was destined for the “Negro in Illinois,” an unfinished book on which more than 100 researchers from the Illinois office of the Federal Writers Project collaborated. The study was supervised by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy. Among the writers who participated were Richard Wright, Fenton Johnson, Margaret Walker and L.D. Reddick.
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Rev. Addie L. Wyatt
Faith in the Struggle: Rev. Addie L. Wyatt’s Fight for Labor, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights
March 23, 2013 – March 15, 2014
The Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature presents an exhibit recognizing the life and work of the late Rev. Addie L. Wyatt, who served as co-pastor of Chicago’s Vernon Park Church of God with her husband, the Rev. Claude Wyatt, Jr., and was one of the leading human rights activists in 20th century America. This exhibit traces Wyatt’s life and work from her birth in Brookhaven, Miss., to her passing in 2012, from her part in the epic Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to Chicago to her rise in the labor unions to her fight for women’s rights.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference Operation Breadbasket flyer from the Addie and Claude Wyatt Papers
The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature welcomes visitors and researchers during Reading Room hours and by appointment. Given the special nature of the materials, visitors and researchers are asked to conform to security and handling precautions to protect the Library’s holdings.
- Patrons are required to complete a registration form and present valid photo identification before receiving materials.
- All materials may be used only in the Reading Room.
- Researchers interested in unprocessed collections are asked to contact the Harsh Research Collection in advance about their availability.
Photographic Reproduction Services
Photocopies and photographic reproductions may be obtained by patrons for a fee if the physical condition of the material permits.