Preserving History, Cultivating Knowledge: The Vital Role of Black-owned Bookstores
Books have the power to educate, inspire, and bring people together. They offer a window into different perspectives and experiences, spark conversations and bring about change. Black-owned bookstores play a crucial role in our communities by providing access to books and literature that reflect the experiences of Black people and tell the history of our people from OUR perspective, highlighting not only our struggles but our contributions to the world. Yet, Black-owned bookstores account for only six percent of all bookstores in the US.
David Ruggles and Lewis Michaux were two of the most influential figures in the history of Black-owned bookstores.
Born in 1810 to free parents in Norwich, Connecticut, David Ruggles was an abolitionist, journalist, and publisher. He also owned a grocery store in the heart of New York City. Within this store, he had a circulating library and offered a reading room to Black people who were denied access to New York’s public libraries. This became the nation’s first Black-owned bookstore and was a place where Black people could come together to advocate for their rights and fight for freedom. Ruggles sold anti-slavery publications until the store was burned down by a white mob.
Lewis Michaux, born in 1889, was another prominent figure in the history of Black-owned bookstores. He established the “Afro-American Bookstore” in Harlem, New York, which became one of the largest Black-owned bookstores in the country. He called his store “The House of Common Sense and The Home of Proper Propaganda.” Open from 1932 until 1974, it not only carried over 200,000 titles but was a hub of Black political and cultural activity. Some of the great icons of our community who visited there regularly were W.E.B. DuBois (who met his wife at the store), Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, and Muhammad Ali.
Both David Ruggles and Lewis Michaux dedicated their lives to spreading knowledge and fighting for social justice. Their legacies serve as a reminder that Black-owned bookstores are essential to the education and empowerment of Black communities. They don’t just sell books. They provide a space for Black people to come together and engage in meaningful conversations about race and social justice. They provide a platform for Black voices and stories. They play a critical role in preserving Black history and culture.
We must patronize Black-owned bookstores regularly and repeatedly to ensure they have the support they need to thrive. Let us continue to honor the legacies of David Ruggles and Lewis Michaux by supporting Black-owned bookstores and spreading the word about them far and wide.
Audra Russell is a blogger, freelance writer, and published author. She holds two undergraduate degrees in journalism as well as a Master of Science degree in Education. She also completed the Wesleyan University online Creative Writing Specialization course series.
She is an avid reader and writer’s advocate. Her passion for promoting the works of up-and-coming authors inspired her to create her podcast, Between the Reads, as well as her website, Read It Black to Me. Her debut novel, BLOOD LAND, was published on August 29, 2020, as her fiftieth birthday gift to herself. She lives in Maryland with her husband of more than 20 years, her 3 amazing children, a 12-year-old perpetual puppy, two dueling cats, and her lone surviving chicken of 8 years who she affectionately renamed Gloria (she will survive!)