Since its founding in 1941, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection has documented and celebrated the artistic and intellectual achievements of African Americans. The collection was established by Carl Van Vechten to honor the remarkable life of his good friend, the author, professor, lawyer, diplomat, poet, songwriter, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson. Van Vechten was approached by Bernhard Knollenberg, Yale’s head librarian, who told him, “We haven’t any Negro books at all.” They were, Van Vechten recalled, “precisely the right words to convince me that Yale was the place” to gift his personal archive, a relatively small but significant collection that reflected his abiding interest in and commitment to black people and black culture. Following Van Vechten’s gift, Johnson’s widow, Grace Nail Johnson, contributed her late husband’s papers, leading the way for gifts of papers from Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White and Poppy Cannon White, Dorothy Peterson, Chester Himes, and Langston Hughes. The collection also contains the papers of Richard Wright and Jean Toomer, as well as groups of manuscripts or correspondence of such writers as Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman.
Today, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection is a key archive of African American history and culture. With over 13,000 volumes and at least 11,000 digitized images, it is one of the most consulted collections in the Yale Library. Representative manuscripts suggest the richness of the collection: Richard Wright’s Native Son; Jean Toomer’s Cane; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; W. E. B. DuBois’s Harvard thesis, “The Renaissance of Ethics” (which contains annotations by William James); James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man and God’s Trombones; and Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues. Examples of the abundant correspondence include: letters between: Owen Dodson and Adam Clayton Powell; Joel Spingarn and W. E. B. DuBois; and Georgia Douglas Johnson and William Stanley Braithewaite. The correspondence of Dr. Johnson and Walter White documents the early history of the NAACP. Also present are music manuscripts by W. C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Thomas “Fats” Waller, among others.
The JWJ Collection also contains extensive visual material. Carl Van Vechten photographed hundreds of his friends including all the persons mentioned above as well as Alvin Ailey, Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Arthur Mitchell, Paul Robeson, Margaret Walker, and Ethel Waters, to give but a sampling. These photographs, together with those collected by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, comprise an important visual record of artists, writers, actors, musicians, and politicians active in the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s. Sculpture by Richmond Barthé, Augusta Savage, and Leslie Bolling, drawings by Mary Bell, a portrait head of Ethel Waters by Antonio Salemme, as well as commemorative medals and prints are among the many works of art in the collection. Acquired in the 1990s, the Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection of photographs of and by African Americans contains nearly three thousand photographs of African Americans and spans the history of photography, from daguerreotypes and cabinet cards to photographic postcards and snapshots.
Robust acquisitions are ongoing. Recent additions include: the archives of educator, suffragette, and anti-lynching activist Ellen Barksdale-Brown; the literary archive of playwright and director Lloyd Richards—who served as the Dean of the Yale School of Drama and is remembered as the director of the 1959 Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun—a collection of approximately one hundred letters by James Baldwin; and the foundation records of African American poetry institution, Cave Canem. The Collection continues to grow beyond traditional print material with acquisitions in black tourism, beauty culture, and film ephemera.