|Malcolm X at a rally, with Michaux's National Memorial African Bookstore in the background, 1960.|
I've frequented the Strand over the last several years with my students. I'm aware, however, that there's a long history of black bookstores in New York City. George Young, founder of Young’s Book Exchange, which was also known as The Mecca of Literature for Colored People, was running his company as early as 1917. In that year in a letter to the editor of The New York Age, a black newspaper, the bookstore owner wrote that “I think you will be glad to know that out constant efforts are bearing fruit. It is exceedingly gratifying to notice the growing interest manifested in books by and pertaining to the Negro race.”
In 1932, Lewis Michaux founded the National Memorial African Bookstore also known as the “House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.” In 1942, Richard B. Moore established the Frederick Douglass Book Center. In 1967, Una Mulzac founded the Liberation Bookstore. Beyond selling books, what these stores had in common was their location in Harlem.
These black bookstores were more than places to purchase reading materials. Instead, they were meeting areas for a wide variety of people interested in sharing and exchanging ideas. They were crucial cultural institutions that served as repositories of African American, African, and Caribbean thought. They were symbols of black knowledge. The stores also provided those who were so inclined with a special opportunity to “buy black.”
If you were a black person living in or passing through New York City on a quest for knowledge in the early decades of the 1900s, during the 1920s, during the 1940s and 1950s, during the 1960s on through the late 1990s, then you were likely to visit one of those black bookstores.
• A series on black book culture