By Sara Hoover
A typical English professor’s office usually consists of piles of books, papers and
general clutter. In some ways, Dr. Reginald Martin’s office is no different. Almost
every square inch of his walls is adorned with awards, articles and degrees. Until
recently, he also had file cabinets filled to the brim with meticulously kept letters
Martin, professor of English and coordinator of African-American Literature in the
College of Arts & Sciences, donated more than 15,000 items to the Memphis Public Library.
Entries include works from Martin, Ernest Gaines and Ishmael Reed. Digital media that
contains recorded interviews and writer presentations were also donated.
The Dr. Reginald Martin African-American Literature & Writing Collection is housed
in the history department at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
“The reason I gave it to the public library and not the 10 other private, rich universities
that were asking me for it was that these universities had limited access. Whereas,
since I’m a product of public schools, I want the public library to have it so that
anybody of whatever age can come in from the community and use the materials.”
Martin, who has authored and edited eight books, recognizes the value of manuscripts
in different stages and writer’s biographies as a way to fully understand someone’s
work or a literary movement.
“Most of the archive existed before there was e-mail. So you had real letters between
me and Germaine Greer or me and Ishmael Reed. A bunch of famous or nearfamous people
going back and forth about how literature should be taught in the South, how African-American
literature should be promoted. I think that would be the key thing for any researcher
who was trying to understand the period between ‘79 and ‘89 - a real pivotal period
for codifying what African-American literature study is going to be. As I read more
and more biographies and life studies of a writer, I began to see how important that
Martin donated more than 15,000 manuscripts, letters and other items to the Hooks
Library. (Photo by Lindsey Lissau)
The collection comprises 35 years worth of saving that began when Martin was 17.
“I wrote to this famous writer, Anne Sexton, a big Pulitzer-prize winner in poetry,
and she wrote me back to my amazement. This really got me excited and helped me out
later because when I went off to college I became Sexton’s research assistant. I thought,
‘I should save this letter.’ I started thinking if I ever really do anything with
my career, maybe I’ll get a lot of things like this and somebody can use them for
The donation is Martin’s way of giving back to the community, something instilled
in him by a grandparent.
“My grandfather was convinced I would never get a job and he made me promise if I
ever actually did, I would do something to help the community. So, when I started
saving all these articles and doing these interviews and making these audio tapes
back in the ‘70s, it was kind of to keep my promise to him.”
Martin, a U of M alumnus (MA ‘79), did achieve his grandfather’s dreams of employment
and broke a record by being the youngest full professor in U of M history.
The donation is also a way for Martin to come full circle with the library. The Memphis
Public Library originally denied African-Americans access, including Martin and author
“They not only denied Richard Wright the ability to check out books. As best I can
research, from 1925 to 1965, all citizens of Memphis paid something called a library
tax. That included African-American citizens, but they couldn’t go in. It’s incredible,
right? First, you couldn’t go in. Then, you had a race-specific library in the ‘60s.
Then, you had one library that was integrated, but you could only check out a certain
number of books. I think the African-American limit was two.”
Martin was “greatly honored” when the library named the collection after him. It opened
in October 2008 and is appraised at $45,000 by Menza-Barron Appraisers of New York.
“I laugh more than anything. I remember ‘74. I remember saving these two scraps of
Dr. Jerry W. Ward Jr., Dillard University distinguished scholar and professor of English
and African world studies and past U of M Moss Chair of Excellence in English, believes
the collection “is invaluable to anyone studying African-American Literature, Southern
culture of the past 40 years, or studying how a manuscript changes in different editorial
Martin hopes it will have several uses for students and researchers of literature
“For example, Callaloo, a famous African-American journal, is founded in New Orleans.
I’ve got the letters between the two principals on why they broke up and how the journal
ended up at Virginia. That stuff would be invaluable to somebody who wanted to understand
Southern African-American arts at the time because that journal was very big — not
only on literature — but on photography, graphic arts, song lyrics. That stuff would
be invaluable because it coincides with the civil rights movement.”
Martin also has a rejection letter from Toni Morrison.
“It’s really famous that nobody’s ever seen. I was working on a book called Erotique
Noir in ‘90 and I wrote her and I said, ‘Ms. Morrison I’m so and so and I was wondering
if you could provide us with X. We could pay you X.’ She took my letter and took a
big, red, felt pen and she wrote on it, ‘No, absolutely not under any circumstances
I am writing anything.’ That’s important I think to be in the archive.”
Because of his archivist experience, Martin has kept the collection alphabetized and
catalogued by genre — a librarian’s dream.
“I was the original research assistant for the Tulsa Center for Women’s Studies with
Germaine Greer. I was the archivist. It just really taught me a lot about archiving
and how to keep certain things together. That’s kind of what I did with the files
in the African-American literature collection. If you pull ‘black aesthetic,’ there’s
going to be stuff on that folder that has sub-references. I think that will be helpful.”
One area that remains to be catalogued is the digital media, but the library plans
to do that within the next five years.
“African-American literature never really ever had its own program or its own archive
in the South before. Now it has both.”