In 1914, Dr. Jesse E. Moorland, a Black theologian who was an alumnus and trustee of the University, donated his private library, at that time considered one of the most significant collections of Black related materials in existence. Dr. Moorland’s donation reflected the efforts of African Americans to take a leadership role in the documentation, preservation, and study of their own history and culture. His collection provided the catalyst for the centralization of the University Library’s other Black related materials, which became known collectively as the Moorland Foundation. In 1946 Howard University acquired the large personal library of Arthur B. Spingarn, an attorney, social activist, and prominent collector of books and other materials produced by Black people. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center is named for these two benefactors whose collections provided the foundation upon which later development could be built.
Although several librarians helped to develop the Moorland Foundation’s collection during the early years, the appointment in 1930 of Dorothy B. Porter signaled a new era. In a career that spanned more than forty years, Dr. Porter guided the collection through substantial expansion, including the development of a new classification scheme, authoritative bibliographies, and a wide variety of research tools. In 1973 the collections were reorganized as the Moorland-Spingarn Research center, and Dr. Michael R. Winston was appointed it’s first director. Under Dr. Winston’s leadership, separate Library and Manuscript Divisions were established, and the Howard University Museum and Howard University Archives were created. While the Library Division was expected to continue to expand the MSRC’s extensive collections of books, newspapers, journals, and printed materials, the other units were an integral part of the Research Center’s new program development. The new programs emphasized the identification, acquisition, preservation, research and exhibition of materials which would transform the existing special collections into a modern archival and manuscript repository and museum facility. From 1986 to 2010, the MSRC was directed by Dr. Thomas C. Battle. Following Dr. Battle’s departure, the center was directed by Howard Dodson until 2016. The current director is Professor Rhea Ballard-Thrower. Current plans call for a greater reliance upon digital technology, increased public programs, and sponsored research projects, including an active commitment to publishing the products of research conducted at the Research Center by its staff and other scholars.
Seminal books for the MSRC came from the University’s principal founder, General O. O. Howard and others. However, the earliest sizeable donation was the bequest of abolitionist Lewis Tappan, who was instrumental in the story of the freedom-seeking Africans aboard the 1839 slave ship Armistad. These books, and other secondary source materials, such as, newspapers, periodicals, dissertations, news clippings, and microforms, are housed in the Center’s Library Division, where there is also a special collection of Rare Books. The Manuscript Division houses the Center’s primary source materials and original documents, such as, oral history recordings and transcriptions, personal and organizational papers, photographs and other images, sheet music and recordings. The Howard University Archives houses University these and dissertations, archival administrative files, and Howadiana publications. The Howard University Museum houses the Center’s artifacts. A more detailed description of individual collections, materials and artifacts appears in the recently published book about the Center, Legacy: Treasures of Black History, edited by Thomas C. Battle and Donna M. Wells (2006)
What began in the early years of Howard University as a small collection of antislavery books and pamphlets is now one of the world’s premiere centers for the study of the Black experience. It has made possible new research and enabled scholars to probe more deeply into the complexities of Black history and culture. In linking its past accomplishments to its plans for the future, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center continues in its unswerving commitment to preserve the legacy of people of African descent for this and future generations.