Descendants of African American Poet Discover their Roots in LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

Published 9:13 am Saturday, April 1, 2023

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BATON ROUGE – After 50 years of searching for their grandfather’s long-lost publications as part of a family genealogical project, two cousins from Maryland, Renee Anderson and Sharon Young, had no idea that they would find what they had been searching for more than 1,000 miles from home at LSU.

Initially, Young reached out to the Library of Congress for help and discovered through them that LSU Libraries Special Collections has a signed, first edition of their grandfather’s 1938 book, “Gems of the Soul: A Book of Verse and Poetic Prose,” written by their grandfather Harry Wilson Patterson.

“After searching for so many years, to be able to call LSU and say, ‘That’s my grandfather!’ makes the whole thing come alive in a different way. It’s not just a book on a shelf. It gives it energy. It has made a family be proud of their legacy. It is such a gift,” Anderson said.

LSU acquired Patterson’s book as part of the Wyatt Houston Day Collection of Poetry by African Americans, which LSU purchased in 2022. This important collection of Black poetry includes more than 800 works from the 18th century, the Harlem Renaissance, and through to the 21st century. Some of the more prominent items in the collection include books by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks; the original typed manuscript of the music cues for Langston Hughes’ 12-part poem, “Ask Your Mama”; and a first edition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rare second book “Majors and Minors” once owned by Frederick Douglass’ family.

Patterson’s book was among the first items in the collection to have been cataloged and listed online in December 2022, which enabled the Library of Congress to find it just in time when Young contacted them in January 2023. Had she contacted the Library of Congress only a few weeks earlier, there would have been no record of it.

When Anderson and Young contacted LSU, they discovered that not only did LSU have Patterson’s book, but it also had a broadside of his poem “Sleep On!” which he wrote in honor of the lives lost on Pearl Harbor Day during World War II and which had not been cataloged yet. “Sleep On!” won him a citation from the Navy Department and was distributed around the world.

About Poet Harry Wilson Patterson

Patterson was born in Wake County, North Carolina, in 1897 and moved to Washington D.C. when he was 20 years old. Shortly thereafter, he served in World War I as a corporal of infantry and later as an acting sergeant. Patterson attended Howard University’s School of Religion, and by 1938 he was serving as an ordained minister. During World War II, he worked as a draftsman and artist for the Navy, where he created many wartime Defense Department posters. He retired from government service in 1952. In a brief autobiography that Patterson included at the beginning of “Gems of the Soul,” he wrote, “I am determined not only to serve this present age, but to leave an imprint upon the sands of time, that the coming generations may rise up and call me blessed. I shall leave to my children a heritage of which they may be proud.”

“The autobiography at the beginning of the book gave us so much information about our family that we didn’t know about. It was like a roadmap for us to go all the way back to 1897,” Anderson said, “So many things have come out of this. It’s not just about the book. It’s about how much we are learning still. It’s like an awakening—that’s the best way I can describe it.”

According to John David Miles, LSU Libraries’ Curator of Books, “While Patterson may not be a particularly well-known poet, this story represents exactly the type of real-world impact we want this collection to have on members of the public. It highlights the scope and vibrancy of African American poetic accomplishments and the importance of this collection for Louisiana and beyond.”

“Having it at LSU means it lives on forever. I’m honored that it will live on forever,” Anderson said.