"The Great God Gumby" > The Scrapbooks of History
Despite its fame as a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, the Gumby Book Studio continued to serve its original purpose from the moment it opened to the day it closed: it was a place where Gumby could produce, store, and display his scrapbooks documenting both historical subjects and contemporary life, in addition to his collection of nearly 3,000 rare books. (The artist's proof of Gumby's custom-engraved bookplate appears in the page reproduced above; see: "Gumby's Book Studio, pt. 1," p. 13 [open].) Gumby himself later described the variety of scrapbook subjects that struck his fancy and accounted for the approximately 300 volumes he had compiled by the late 1920s: "there was . . . a file devoted to Broadway classics . . . [and] other sections were devoted to Theodore Roosevelt, the Prince of Wales, Abraham Lincoln, and many other personages." By this time, he had also already started to create the volumes that profiled not only famous African Americans but also subjects he considered to be of related interest, like slavery, the work of the NAACP, or US publications about Africa.
Though started as a personal passion, his scrapbooks eventually gained a reputation outside his circle of friends. The Roof Garden at Hammerstein's Theater displayed volumes devoted to the actress Frances White, while the Theater Guild Magazine profiled Gumby's scrapbooks of nineteenth-century playbills. Yet despite the generalist nature of the overall collection, it was specifically Gumby's scrapbooks about the African diaspora that gained him the most notice and quickly became the largest single focus of his collection. The demand for these volumes was so great that Gumby lent various scrapbooks to institutions in Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, and other places for public display, usually as part of annual "Negro History Week" celebrations. Black-owned newspapers began to profile Gumby and kept tabs on his project's progress long after the Gumby Book Studio ceased to exist. As Gumby later put it about the size of the collection, "my Negro collection was fast becoming a giant thing." He could just as easily have been talking about its public prominence.
A profile of Gumby published in the 13 August 1930 edition of the New York Amsterdam News helps to explain why these scrapbooks gained notice: "in the navy they speak of the man behind the gun; in literature more should be said of the man behind the author. That man is the documentarian, whose . . . labors fertilize the soil from which grow the flowers of history and letters." Gumby served this role when he compiled any of his scrapbooks, but his African American-themed volumes were particularly noteworthy because "Negro letters especially have suffered from the lack of adequate documentation." In a world in which "much priceless information has been carelessly destroyed and much more is lying about in odd corners of the world, waiting to be found," Gumby's passion to find such items made his pursuit essential to anyone who believed that African-American contributions were worthy of being remembered by both popular and academic historians alike. The fact that he simultaneously preserved items of contemporary life with an eye towards future historians made the project doubly valuable.
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Gumby continued to add to and refine his scrapbooks until nearly the end of his life, even taking on several stints as a temporary employee of Columbia University to work on preparing his volumes for display after he sold them to the school's Rare Book & Manuscript Library in the 1950s (see at right: "Gumby's Autobiography in Scrapbooks: Number 6," pp.  and ). Though the Gumby Book Studio helped to both create and define an important moment in time, its influence ceased to exist when Gumby ran out of money to fund it. His scrapbooks, on the other hand, live on today as part of the Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana and are still regularly consulted by students and scholars writing their own histories on the basis of Gumby's documentation. The following exhibit showcases both the breadth of Gumby's collecting and the curatorial vision he demonstrated, while providing numerous examples of the pages that Gumby painstakingly compiled and refined over a period of nearly fifty years.