LSU Home of Most Important Private Collection of African American Poetry

Published 2:00 pm Thursday, February 17, 2022

BATON ROUGE – The Wyatt Houston Day Collection of Poetry by African Americans, the most important private collection of Black poetry, now belongs to LSU. The LSU Libraries Special Collections will house the over 800 items previously owned by book collector and dealer Wyatt Houston Day. This collection includes works from the 18th century, the Harlem Renaissance and through to the 21st century.

“This collection allows for a dynamic understanding of canonical African American poets and offers numerous avenues for new research and appreciation of the poetic voice of African Americans throughout American history,” said John Miles, curator of books at LSU Libraries Special Collections. “The acquisition of these books makes LSU an important research site for anyone interested in American literature and African American culture, as well as affording students the chance to materially confront this genre’s grand sweep, political importance, and remarkable intellectual contribution to the nation and the world.”

Some of the main works in this collection include:

  • a first edition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rare second book from 1895 “Majors and Minors” once owned by Frederick Douglass’ family and inscribed to his niece;
  • a collection of books by Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as a broadside published following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.;
  • the original typed manuscript of the music cues for Langston Hughes’ 12-part poem, “Ask Your Mama,” inscribed by Hughes to poet Amiri Baraka, also known as LeRoi Jones.

More remarkable might be the many smaller, almost ephemeral, but nonetheless important chapbooks and other unheralded publications by minor and otherwise unknown authors. These rare materials add context to the more recognizable names and present a fuller sense of the scope and vibrancy of African American poetic accomplishment over 200 years. Beyond simply its literary value, this collection captures the lives and culture of a people as told in verse,” Miles said.

Appraised in September 2021 by antiquarian Henry Wessells of the James Cummins Bookseller in New York, the Day Collection is valued at $612,940.00. But because of Day’s desire to have the works live at an educational institution, part of the collection was gifted in order to be used and appreciated in perpetuity.

“The Day Collection would allow our archives to speak not only about Black lives but would raise up their voice as subjects, giving life and agency to spaces previously silent or imagined,” Miles said.

This acquisition represents a commitment and an opportunity for an evolving, diverse and inclusive LSU, that strides fiercely into the future.

“The Wyatt Houston Day Collection compliments existing literary holdings at LSU, but it also means an enormous boost to the representation of works by writers who have been historically marginalized. The acquisition of this collection is a significant contribution to LSU’s efforts as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said LSU Libraries Dean Stanley Wilder.

Speaker series and other programmatic events surrounding The Wyatt Houston Day Collection of Poetry by African Americans will be announced later this year. The Wyatt Houston Day Collection of Poetry by African Americans will be available for public access at Hill Memorial Library once it has been properly catalogued and preserved. Selected items will be available by request before that time.