Beinecke Windows Showcase James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters

November 11, 2020

By Michael Morand

Though the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library building remains closed to the public until further notice, the digital library remains open to all online … and now the building’s ground floor windows are a platform for sharing images from the collections, with a new display celebrating the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters installed on the exterior glass.

On the building’s east side, facing Hewitt Quadrangle, the new exhibition begins with text from the opening lines of Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again.” The poem by Langston Hughes was first published in Esquire in 1936 and, revised, in a collection of his poetry, A New Song, in 1938. The Langston Hughes Papers are the single most consulted archive in the Beinecke Library. Given by him beginning in 1941 and continuing throughout his life, they are part of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection

To the right of that text are a series of images from color photographs taken by Carl Van Vechten. He was the founder of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection with support and donations by many authors, artists, and activists, including some pictured on the windows, such as HughesDorothy PetersonHarold JackmanGrace Nail JohnsonZora Neale HurstonW. E. B. Du Bois, and Paul Robeson. Other images show writers represented in Beinecke Library archival collections, including James BaldwinMargaret BondsCountee Cullen, and Richard Wright, and other great civic and cultural leaders such as Marian Anderson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Fitzgerald.

The 14 photographs shown in the display are among the hundreds of Van Vechten photographs visible to all in the Beinecke Library digital collections – and among the tens of thousands of images from the overall James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters and the more than one million total images of material across Beinecke Library collections. 

“While current circumstances prevent us from welcoming the public into the physical library, this outdoor showcase allows us to highlight further some treasures that are at once timely and timeless,” said Edwin C. Schroeder, director of the Beinecke Library. “The newly installed vinyl images on the ground floor are an invitation to all to explore the countless treasures that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to everyone through our digital collections.” 

On the north side of the building, toward Grove Street, the library has installed a dsiplay, “We hold these truths … ” that feature images related to Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration (“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”), and the Woman’s Right Convention of 1848.

Previously, on the south side of the building, toward Wall Street, vinyl images showed James Weldon Johnson in an iconic black and white photograph by Van Vechten, along with items from the James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers related to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” including: the lyrics from his notebooks, 1900; a small-scale reproduction of Augusta Savage’s plaster sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” 1939; and sheet music, 1928, with presentation inscription from J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson’s brother and musical partner.

“We hope this new display will serve as an inspiration to all who pass by the Beinecke Library,” Schroeder said. “In past years, we’ve had exterior vinyl images as a companion to and promotion for public exhibitions inside the building. In this time when we cannot host indoor exhibitions, we hope this special outdoor display encourages people to engage the past, in the present, for the future by engaging with our digital collections, and fuel interest in the future to visit the library’s exhibition hall when public health permits us to reopen.”

The display was organized by Beinecke Library staff and designed by the Office of the University Printer. It will be on display until further notice, throughout 2020 and into 2021.