Reflections on 20 Years of Printed & Manuscript African Americana

The following is an excerpt from the introduction written by Swann Galleries’ Printed & Manuscript African Americana Specialist Wyatt Houston Day for his 2016 catalogue–the 20th annual African Americana sale at Swann. The complete introduction can be found in our digital flipbook version of the catalogue.  

Timbuktu, Qur'an, Printed & Manuscript African Americana

A nearly complete manuscript copy of the Qur’an from the Yattara Family Library in Timbuktu, circa 1600-1700. Sold March 26, 2015, for $50,000.


We are proud of the fact that over the years our sales have provided the opportunity for the rediscovery of two very important manuscripts. Both have changed history significantly.


The first was Lot 337 of our first catalogue in 1996, the manuscript Narrative of Omar Ibn Said, a Fula slave from Senegal who was captured and brought to North Carolina, where he was purchased by the Governor of the state. Omar’s narrative, written in 1831 in Arabic, remains the only known slave narrative written by a slave in his native written language. This narrative, together with the manuscript Qur’an, which we featured in the March 2015 sale, demonstrate the thriving culture that existed in Africa south of the Sahara for centuries prior to the Atlantic slave trade, contradicting the then-widely-held belief that Black Africa had no culture; a theory which helped rationalize the barbarous practice for centuries. 


Hannah Crafts, The Bondswoman's Narrative, Printed & Manuscript African Americana

Hannah Crafts, The Bondswoman’s Narrative By Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped from North Carolina, 301 manuscript pages, circa 1850s. Sold February 15, 2001, for $8,500.


The second manuscript was sold at Swann in 2001 in our sixth sale, titled The Bondswoman’s Narrative By Hannah Crafts, A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped From North Carolina, circa 1850s. It was found in a box among the papers of Dorothy Porter, scholar and long-time librarian at Howard University. The narrative was purchased by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who edited and published it with a lengthy introduction the following year. It turned out to be the first novel written by an African-American woman. Much has been written about it since. 

Over the years, innumerable pieces, both printed and manuscript, have been acquired by collectors and institutions, filling important gaps in their historical holdings.

These are only a couple of examples of how our catalogues have coaxed important historical material out of people’s closets, attics and storage facilities and made them available to the wider world to be seen and appreciated by scholars, collectors and the general public.


Over the years, innumerable pieces, both printed and manuscript, have been acquired by collectors and institutions, filling important historical gaps in their historical holdings. It has been a great honor for me and a tremendous learning process to have been able to handle, catalogue and attempt to place sensible estimates on so much incredible material.