William Henry Dorsey

William Henry Dorsey was an African American of means who lived in 19th-century Philadelphia.  Like many others of his generations, he was bitten by the collecting and archiving bug. The son of Thomas Dorsey, an enslaved man who fled bondage in Maryland and secured his freedom in Philadelphia, William was  born in 1837 and died in 1923.  His entire life he clipping newspaper articles and pasting them into scrapbooks. Each organized by topic.  At his death he had more than 400.

Articles were mainly from black and white northern newspapers. Some from extremely rare publications. The scrapbooks hold articles on Black emigration schemes, fraternal orders, actors, and centenarians who lived through slavery.  The topics varied from lynchings to Frederick Douglass.  It serves as an invaluable record of Reconstruction’s promise and failure. They also highlight the journey of Black people from chattel to citizens.

Dorsey made the scrapbooks by hand. As his base material, he often used existing volumes or wallpaper books. He neatly pasted newspaper clippings or printed programs from community events atop the pages, frequently dating these palimpsests in his own hand. He sometimes bound pages together with crimson string that remains bright more than a century later.

Dorsey’s Library Museum

In the fall of 1896, the Philadelphia Times published articles about two visits to Dorsey’s home. The reporter found the top floor of Dorsey’s rowhouse converted to an “African museum.” Dorsey’s  library concentrated on Black achievement. Bookshelves offered amazing of treasures. Found was a slim volume of Phillis Wheatley’s poems, published in the late 1700s. The chronicles of the abolitionist Ignatius Sancho, a former slave and the first Black citizen known to have cast a vote in Britain and letters by Sojourner Truth all were on the shelves. The reporter mentioned the hundreds of handmade scrapbooks arrayed on Dorsey’s shelves.  In his home museum, William Henry Dorsey prominently displayed a letter that the antislavery senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts had written to his father.


Today, other writers and scholars recognize the importance of materials such as the Dorsey collection. These resources collected and preserved informally by African Americans preserved the history of African American people in the 19th century. Contemporary historians had little interest in the lives of any ordinary people.

Though the Dorsey scrapbooks have endured, their preservation and accessibility to scholars who can interpret them are not guaranteed. The small, historically Black institution that owns the scrapbooks has lacked the resources to best house or maintain them. And a partnership between that institution and Penn State that today physically stores the Dorsey collection has never been expanded to ensure needed conservation.

To read the entire story of the scrapbooks, their preservation and the story of 19th Century Philadelphia.   Click

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