Penn Libraries receives archive of writer, activist, and historian James G. Spady

Spady’s prolific archive highlights figures in African American history including scholars, musicians, and architects, and documented Philadelphia’s place in the Civil Rights Movement and hip-hop.

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries recently acquired the archive of James G. Spady, a writer, historian, and activist who shed light on understudied aspects of African American history, and whose legacy and intellectual output made him a salient and influential African American figure in his own right. After Spady’s death in 2020 at age 75, his family and a group of Penn alumni whom Spady closely mentored worked to build an archive of his prolific writings, which will now be preserved—and eventually celebrated through exhibitions and events—at Penn.

Jeriba Allen, Spady’s niece, facilitated the gift. “He spent his adult life in Philadelphia and made so many connections at the University of Pennsylvania, so it feels kismet that those same connections helped facilitate this gift that will allow his collection to be there for all to explore.”

“For the collective who helped make this gift happen, the archive is in itself a kind of monument to Spady in the place that he spent so much time thinking and writing,” says Sean Quimby, associate University librarian and director of the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies.

James Spady (right) and South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele.
James Spady (right) interviewing South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele. (Image: Courtesy of Leandre K. Jackson)

Spady received the American Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988 at age 45. He interviewed many prominent African American scholars, musicians, and writers, such as James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Ntozake Shange; he also drew attention to African American cultural figures, intellectuals, and political activists who had been overlooked, such as architect Julian Abele, composer William L. Dawson, and professor, folklorist, poet, and literary critic Sterling A. Brown. As a longtime Philadelphia resident, Spady wrote often about the city and its contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Later, he also documented the history and culture of hip-hop, co-authoring the first-ever trilogy of books on the topic.

The archive includes rare copies of Spady’s books; copies of the New Observer; research files, correspondence, photographs, and page layouts from his book “Georgie Woods—I’m Only a Man!: The Life Story of a Mass Communicator, Promoter, Civil Rights Activist” (1992) and for an unfinished book on African American architects; and photographs taken by Spady’s frequent collaborator Leandre Jackson of many of Spady’s famous interviewees, such as Georgie Woods, Toni Morrison, and Miles Davis. The archive also includes documents relating to the founding of the Black History Museum Library in North Philadelphia, of which Spady was the primary founder in 1968 (the museum closed in 1972 after a fire and subsequent theft), as well as documents relating to colloquia Spady organized at Swarthmore College.

Samir Meghelli was a mentee of Spady’s and key participant in the creation of the archive, a standout element of the collection is the archive of the Black History Museum UMUM Newsletter. (UMUM was a term frequently used by Spady that he told others meant “timeless.”)

“First of all, the newsletter title doesn’t do it justice because it really brought together writers from around the country and the world on a range of topics in Black history,” Meghelli says. “It’s just an incredible record of the work that James Spady and his collaborators did in shining a light on really underexplored topics in African American history and culture. You can see the ways that they charted new territory and brought to light historical figures and topics in African American history and culture that in the years since have become much more prominent. They were really doing important work.”

Charles (Chaz) Lattimore Howard, Penn’s University chaplain and vice president for Social Equity & Community, is another of Spady’s mentees. “Spady and I were both on a panel, this would have been, 2000, maybe 2001, that some Penn students were hosting on hip-hop. We were both panelists, and Spady kept looking at me,” Howard says.

Howard recalls, “The Penn Libraries [particularly Van Pelt] was like his office. Most of the things he wrote over 25 or 30 years of his life were written in Mark’s Café or the Afro-American Seminar Room.”

Spady also organized many events at Penn, from his own guest lectures to panels to celebrations of published works. Meghelli says that one of these events was among the first of its kind to honor pioneering architect Julian Abele, the first Black graduate of what is today the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, for designing various buildings on campus, including the President’s House and Irvine Auditorium. Spady also self-published a pamphlet he wrote, “Julian Abele and the Architecture of Bon Vivant,” to raise awareness of Abele’s contribution to Philadelphia as we know it.

Read more at Penn Libraries.