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Porter, Dorothy (1905–) - Curator, History of African-American Women

howard university collection burnett

The “doyenne of black bibliography,” Dorothy Porter was born Dorothy Louise Burnett on May 25, 1905, in Warrenton, Virginia, of African-American ancestry. Her father, Hayes Joseph Burnett, was a physician; her mother, Bertha Ball Burnett, was a professional tennis player. She was raised in Montclair, New Jersey, where she attended public school. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1923 to pursue a teaching degree at the Miner Normal School. Porter earned her degree and took a job as a librarian at Miner and then as a cataloguer at the Carnegie Library at Howard University. At Howard, her primary responsibility was to build a collection on African Americans for the Library of Negro Life and History. While at Howard, Porter earned a bachelor’s degree in 1928. In 1930 she left Howard to attend Columbia University, where she received a master of library science degree in 1932. She was one of the first black women to be awarded this degree at Columbia.

Porter returned to Howard University, where she continued to work in collection development. The Library of Negro Life and History was renamed the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, and Porter worked there until her retirement in 1973. She identified, acquired, and organized over 3,000 items on African Americans into a workable collection and provided the means for countless historians and students of African-American life to complete meaningful research. Porter’s collection includes black newspapers, microfilms, prints, photographs, oral histories, manuscripts, and artifacts.

Dorothy Porter is well known for her persistence and skill in acquiring materials and in finding ways to make them accessible. As Esme Bahn writes, “By the time black studies gained acceptance as a recognized discipline in the 1960s, Dorothy Porter was a master of her craft and sought to teach others how to uncover the neglected history.” She compiled a series of bibliographies and research aids to help people gain access to the materials, and she wrote several scholarly articles.

Dorothy Porter has received tremendous accolades for her work, including honorary degrees from the University of Susquehanna, Syracuse University, and Radcliffe College. She was also invited as visiting scholar at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University. As the director of the DuBois Institute argued, Porter “has contributed as much as any living individual to the critical analysis … of Afro-American source material.” Her most recent honor, in 1994, came when President Bill Clinton announced Porter as one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts.

Dorothy Burnett married James Amos Porter, artist and head of the fine arts department at Howard, in 1930. They had one child, Constance Burnett, in 1939. James Amos Porter died in 1970, and Dorothy Porter married Charles Wesley, educator, historian, minister, and administrator, in 1979. Wesley died in 1987. Some information on Dorothy Porter is available in the vertical files at the Moorland-Spingarn Collection. Dorothy Porter lives in Washington, D.C.

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