Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Carl Van Vechten material included in MARBL's Thomas Wirth collection

Published 05-07-2015

by Randall K. Burkett and Maureen McGavin

One of the items from the Thomas Wirth collection at Emory University is this 1931 broadside of Langston Hughes poetry with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. Credit: Thomas H. Wirth collection, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

A wealth of Langston Hughes material, novels by African American authors, works by painter and graphic artist Aaron Douglas, and an array of Carl Van Vechten photographs are among the treasures in the collection of the late Thomas H. Wirth, recently acquired by the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) at Emory University.

Wirth was a book collector and an independent scholar of African American literature, history and art, concentrating on the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was a friend and collaborator with colleagues at Emory, and in the past he had loaned many of his rarest items for exhibition in MARBL. He founded the Thomas H. Wirth Collection of African-Americana at Chicago State University and contributed significant materials to Yale University as well as Emory.

Items from Wirth’s collection at MARBL, including prints by Aaron Douglas, currently appear in the exhibition “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” currently on display through Sept. 7 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

The Wirth collection at MARBL includes several thousand items of 20th-century African American literature, art and photography. It includes first editions of nearly all fiction by African American authors from 1900 to about 1970, many in the dust jackets, with a special focus on poet Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.

“We are honored to include the Tom Wirth materials in MARBL’s outstanding African American collections,” said MARBL director Rosemary Magee. “They bring great breadth and rich depth to our understandings of literary and cultural life of the 20th century.”

Thomas Wirth is pictured at an event celebrating his collection of materials at the Chicago State University library in 2010. Credit: Photo courtesy Chicago State University library.
Randall K. Burkett, curator of MARBL’s African American collections, said Wirth’s unexpected death on Oct. 10, 2014, came just a few weeks after the bulk of his collection had been transferred to MARBL.

Wirth was a meticulous and generous scholar who was immensely knowledgeable about the black experience in America.

“I rarely had a brief conversation with Tom,” Burkett said. “When he called, I always settled in for what I knew would be an entertaining and informative half-hour or more, filled with thoughtful analysis, gossip, and tidbits of information about the early 20th-century African American literary and cultural scene that could be gleaned nowhere else.”

Many of Wirth’s trove of stories about Harlem Renaissance figures had been learned firsthand from one of those figures, writer and painter Bruce Nugent, whom he had cared for in the later years of Nugent’s life.

The collection dovetails nicely with other African American collections held by MARBL, including Langston Hughes’ correspondence and other material gathered from multiple collections, including the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.

The Langston Hughes material includes not only first editions of all of his books, many signed or inscribed, but also manuscripts of unpublished work, sheet music for which Hughes wrote the lyrics, audio recordings, theater programs, correspondence, and a collection of nearly 400 periodicals containing contributions from Hughes (usually the first appearances of this material in print).

Particularly important items include Hughes’ yearbooks from Cleveland Central High School. These contain many photographs of Hughes and autographs from him and his friends, as well as copies of The Monthly, Central’s literary magazine, in which Hughes’ earliest published writings appeared. A Hughes drawing appears on the cover of one issue of The Monthly in the collection, the only known extant copy of that issue. The scrapbook of one of Hughes’ Lincoln University fraternity brothers, which contains a handwritten Hughes poem and other Hughes material, is among the items.

Aaron Douglas, the painter and graphic artist, designed the dust jackets of many books by Harlem Renaissance authors and others; he was among the foremost book artists of his time. The Wirth library contains an unparalled collection of his dust jackets and other graphic work.

Wirth also collected photographic literature by black photographers and books featuring images of African Americans. The collection contains a substantial accumulation of original photographic portraits of African Americans and others by Carl Van Vechten.

At the time of his death, Wirth was editor of the Countee Cullen Correspondence Online Project of the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, a project of profound importance to scholars of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

The collection is unprocessed, but researchers may schedule an appointment and get more information at the Using MARBL webpage.

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