“New Progress of a Race” book on black history
The book was partially hidden under other items on the auction table, but from the title, I instantly knew who – not what – it was about:
“The New Progress of a Race.” It had to be a book about African Americans, I presumed, as I took it up in my hand to examine it. And indeed, it was. Published in 1920, the book’s pages were as fragile as the message it was trying to impart during those early years of the 20th century.
The book’s full title was as hefty as its contents: “The Progress of a Race or the Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro. From the Bondage of Slavery, Ignorance, and Poverty to the Freedom of Citizenship, Intelligence, Affluence, Honor and Trust.”
The editors were trying to acquaint the country with the accomplishments of its African American citizens despite the odds. I handled the book oh-so-carefully to make sure I didn’t damage it any more than it had been – with its half-split spine and worn edges, and the slight tears on its pages.
I knew that I wanted to have this history of African Americans for myself – even if I had to take the rest of the lot on the auction table: a nice old Smith Corona typewriter, Wedgwood Jasperware blue tray and black paperweight, an old farm-scene print in a broken frame, a tattered Philco radio, a Yashica camera, Bushnell binoculars and a small bird made in Japan.
When the items came up for bids, another auction-goer apparently wanted them, too, but likely everything except the book. We went tit-for-tat, and I had almost given up but decided at the last minute to try one more time. I stepped back in and accepted the latest bid. The other bidder bowed out.
The book was mine, and I’m glad I hung in there.
Back at home with the book, I first saw that it contained a Who’s Who of African Americans – some names I knew, while others were introductions. As I gently turned the pages, I saw photos and prints of African Americans and their contributions.
This “revised and enlarged” issue was edited by J.L. Nichols and William Crogman, the first black president of Clark College in Atlanta (1903-1910) and an advocate of liberal arts rather than vocational education for African Americans as espoused by Booker T. Washington.
It was published by a white company called J.L. Nichols & Co. of Illinois, one of several that saw the money to be made by publishing and marketing books to African Americans. They had observed that blacks were actively buying books from black publishers, so they began producing black-themed biographies and reference books, according to the 2001 book “The Harvard Guide to African-American History.”
“The New Progress of a Race” was first published in 1898 (or 1897 or 1899, depending on what you read), and edited by Crogman and Henry F. Kletzing. It was revised in 1901 with a new name “The Colored American” and new co-editor J.W. Gibson. The book went through three more editions with its original name, with Nichols as the co-editor on each (1920, 1925 and 1929).
Like many other books around that time, it was sold through subscriptions, either through the mail or from agents – many of whom may have been women – paid by publishers to go door to door in towns to sell their books.
The Virginia Center for Digital History has an undated “Dear Friend” subscription letter from the Nichols company to a woman named May Elizabeth Yancey touting the Progress book. The letter was a hard-sell:
“Here, for the first time, is an authentic record of achievement having no equal in the history of mankind. There are over 475 large pages and more than 200 half tone engravings, showing who’s who and what’s what in the Negro Race.
WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO EXAMINE THIS AMAZING BOOK?
Our special offer is to send your copy on ten days free trial. Just pay the postman $1.98 — the special bargain price — plus a few cents postage. Keep the book for ten days. Then if you are not thoroughly convinced that it is the most valuable book you ever owned, return it and your money will be instantly refunded.”
The company was also offering a library edition of the book for $2.90 and a deluxe edition for $3.75. Nichols was seeking agents who could make from $5 to $20 a day “RIGHT NOW” by taking orders for the book.
In the first Progress book, Booker T. Washington wrote the introduction. In my edition, it was written by Robert R. Moton, his successor as principal at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Margaret Murray Washington (Mrs. Booker T. Washington), a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, wrote a chapter on club work among African American women in my copy.
The book is chock full of African American history by subject in text, photos and prints. It ends with plantation melodies, taken from a collection at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), which, according to the book, was preserving the spirituals.