Dorothy Porter Wesley
Born: May 25, 1905, in Warrenton, Virginia
Grew Up in: Montclair, New Jersey
Died: December 17, 1995, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2023: Arts & Letters
It’s not often a librarian can make a mark on history; Dorothy Porter Wesley found the way.
Born Dorothy Burnett, she and her three siblings grew up in Montclair. Their father (a doctor) and mother encouraged education. Dorothy attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a student assistant in the school’s Founders Library. At Howard, Dorothy also met her future husband, James Amos Porter, chairman of the university’s fine arts department.
Dorothy continued her education at Columbia University, earning a B.S. degree. She went on to become one of the first African American women to receive a master’s of library science from Columbia. While still completing her studies, Dorothy landed a job as a cataloger at Howard University’s Carnegie Library. Tasked with assembling a collection of literature by black Americans, she plunged into a trove of roughly 3,000 books and other documents that had been donated by Howard alumnus Jesse E. Moorland.
The Moorland collection and an additional 1,600-piece donation of anti-slavery material became the basis of the Moorland Foundation, America’s first research library devoted to the history and culture of people of African descent. With the purchase in 1946 of some 5,000 volumes amassed by collector Arthur B. Spingarn, the library was renamed the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
With Dorothy as curator, the center’s holdings grew to more than 180,000 items, making it one of the world’s largest repositories of materials for studying black history and culture, the New York Times reported. Her search for books and documents led Dorothy as far away as Africa and Latin America.
Finding the material was not always easy. “Over the years the main thing I had to do was beg—from publishers, authors, families,” Dorothy told the Washington Post. “Sometimes it meant being there just after the funeral director took out the bodies and saying, ‘You want all this old junk in the basement?’”
In addition to her curatorial work, Dorothy wrote numerous bibliographies of African American works, which have proved invaluable to scholars. The center itself became an essential resource for examining African American history and culture. Its collections include papers and manuscripts from civil-rights leaders and such monumental figures as Paul Robeson Jr. and singer Marian Anderson.
Dorothy’s first husband died in 1970; nine years later, she married Charles Harris Wesley, a Howard professor and authority on black history. Over the years, Dorothy (known variously as Dorothy Porter and Dorothy Porter Wesley) earned many distinctions for her groundbreaking work, including honorary doctorates from Susquehanna University and Radcliffe College. In 1988, she was named a Ford Foundation visiting fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University. In 1994, the National Endowment for the Humanities presented her with the Charles Frankel Prize in part for helping “preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.”