KU’s History of Black Writing project celebrates more than 4 decades of preserving Black literature

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Certainly Black writers have always contributed to American literature, Maryemma Graham recalls thinking during her college class one day in 1972.

Her white professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that day had told his class that there were no Black writers before Richard Wright (1908-1960). 

Graham, now 74, couldn’t fathom that’d be true. Her lived experiences and previous HBCU education taught her differently.

Maryemma Graham

The only Black student out of 300 in the class, Graham challenged her professor, who stood firm. Later that day, she called her mom, who was a second grade teacher at the time.

“I grew up in a small southern town. There had been a writer who lived in my town. So there were things I knew,” Graham said. “My mother said, ‘Well, I guess you’re just gonna have to prove him wrong.’ So that seed was planted at that point.”

Graham founded the History of Black Writing (HBW) — originally the Afro-American Novel Project, then changed to the Project on the History of Black Writing — in 1983 at the University of Mississippi, where she taught English. 

Her primary goal was to create a database that recovered lost or underappreciated writings by Black authors. As time progressed, HBW adapted to the digital age.

Being conscious of who she described as “everyday, ordinary women who were fearless” came naturally to Graham. She said it were those hidden figures who inspired her journey as a journalist, writer, scholar, educator and mother.

Through HBW, she aims to return the favor.

When Graham came to the University of Kansas in 1998, she brought the project with her.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The History of Black Writing has compiled a card collection over the years.

A collaboration between the University of Chicago and HBW at KU, the “History of Black Writing Novel Corpus” now includes more than 7,000 titles, ranging in genre and authored by Black writers in the late 19th century to the late 20th century. 

Those titles are in the process of being digitized, Graham said, but 55 works currently have free public access online at textual-optics-lab.uchicago.edu

In its 41st year overall and 26th year at KU, HBW is reflective of the Black women who laid the project’s foundation and continue sowing for its future.

‘To preserve and to carry on and to gift’

When Graham was hired at KU in ‘98, then-Chancellor Robert Hemenway implored her to be the lead organizer of a symposium to honor the centennial of late poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967). 

At the time, she was joining as part of KU’s Langston Hughes Visiting Professorship, which eventually turned into a long-term employment at the university.

Hughes’ childhood ties to Lawrence enticed Graham.


The symposium in 2002 brought Lawrence community members and literary figures — such as Alice Walker — from all around together in celebration of Hughes. Graham said she remembers it as a unifying event in Lawrence’s history and a defining moment in HBW’s story.

“I think people should never fear — and I hope this is the lesson from HBW — to start a project,” Graham said. “And to make sure that that project has your vision, and it’s not taken over by somebody who thinks that it can be monetized.”

After Graham retired from KU in 2022, Ayesha Hardison stepped into the director role. Graham operates as founding director as she prepares to fully retire this May.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Ayesha Hardison

Hardison teaches as an associate professor of English and women, gender and sexuality studies at KU. Her scholarly research has explored the intersection of gender and race for Black women by looking at writers in the 1930s and ‘40s, such as Dorothy West, Ann Petry, Era Bell Thompson and Zora Neale Hurston.

“To preserve and to carry on and to gift are definitely within the wheelhouse of Black women’s political, creative and personal work,” Hardison said.

Jade Harrison, KU graduate student in English, has previously led digitizing work for the project. Most titles have been collected by Graham, donated or retrieved as part of a student’s research, and all scanning and digitizing is done in Watson Library on campus.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jade Harrison

Harrison’s current research is focused on post-1970s women writers and the social and political climate around them. This semester, her work is being funded through a dissertation fellowship.

“We see a lot of recovery happening in the ‘80s, particularly Black women academics, scholars, teachers doing a lot of recovery in terms of obscured women authors,” Harrison said. “And HBW was founded kind of in the midst of this happening — the ‘Black Women Renaissance.’ And it was founded by a Black woman.” 

‘Publicize it in a way that academia wasn’t’

KU students of all grades can contribute in the HBW office, whether they’re simultaneously conducting research for their dissertations or gaining experience exploring libraries, or both. Some are pursuing degrees not associated with English.

Currently, 27 students — nine graduate and 18 undergraduate — work with HBW. All are paid as either hourly workers or work study staff, and some have been hired through the Emerging Scholars Program


Some graduate students are graduate research assistants, meaning their employment is part of their graduate education funding in lieu of teaching. GRAs receive tuition support.

Ashley Simmons, KU graduate student in English, last semester led archival efforts with HBW. Like Harrison, this semester she’s focusing on her dissertation fellowship.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Ashley Simmons

“I am appreciative of being a part of something so monumental,” Simmons said. “I think the work that HBW has done in the past and continues to do is important work to — I wouldn’t even say validate African American literature, but to publicize it in a way that academia wasn’t.”

HBW has five programs or projects under its wing. Events are almost always public-facing and free of cost. 

As part of HBW’s Black Literary Suite, a collection of works is highlighted under a theme every other year. The 2022 exhibit, “Black Beyond Borders,” featured books written by Afro-Latinx women writers and scholars from around the globe. A hybrid event in conjunction with the exhibit had attendees in person as well as people from Brazil and Colombia tuning in on Zoom.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times As graduate students at the University of Kansas, Ashley Simmons, at left, and Jade Harrison are currently doing research centering Black writing.

During the fall semester, HBW celebrated its 40-year anniversary with an exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art, several panel discussions and more campus events.

Graham is hopeful that becoming a national center that trains people on recovery and archival work is on the horizon for the project she’s known for more than half her life.

“I think HBW is well positioned to give leadership to that, just as we grew into our own over the last 40 years,” Graham said. “So, I’m excited to sit by in my rocking chair and watch it happen.”

Author talk with Maryemma Graham

At an upcoming author talk in Lawrence, Graham will discuss themes of her 2022 book dedicated to activist and writer Margaret Walker.

The biography, “The House Where My Soul Lives: The Life of Margaret Walker,” dives into Walker’s life, honors her contributions to the humanities, and challenges the “angry, Black woman” trope imposed upon her.

The event is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7 at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vermont St. Graham will participate in a Q&A after her presentation.

The event is free to attend, but registration is required on the event page, via the library’s website. Plenty of seats were available as of Wednesday morning.

HBW’s central office is located in Wescoe Hall on KU’s campus.

Visit the HBW website, hbw.ku.edu, for more information and archived work. Stay updated through its social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all at @projecthbw.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Posters of Black visionaries adorn the History of Black Writing office walls.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Meleah Perez is a University of Kansas graduate student and the History of Black Writing scholars program coordinator.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Black comics from the 1970s are part of the History of Black Writing’s collection.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times An outline of Black woman novelist Dorothy West’s book, “The Wedding,” is part of the History of Black Writing’s collection. HBW member Ashley Simmons said author notes help readers see classic literature in a new light.
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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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