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50 Years/50 Collections: The Tom Dent Library, 1998.

Poet and playwright Tom Dent

When authors are asked “What makes a good writer?,” a common answer is “A good writer starts as a good reader.” This oft-quoted maxim is an excellent way to describe the relationship between writer Tom Dent and his personal library, which is housed at the Amistad Research Center along with Dent’s personal papers. New Orleans-born poet, essayist, playwright, teacher, and oral historian Tom Dent was an active participant in the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements. He was a founding member of the Umbra Writers Workshop in New York City in the early 1960s and later was a leading literary figure in New Orleans, publishing two books of poetry, Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982). He was also a prolific oral historian, whose work culminated with the publication of Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997).

Dent began donating his papers to the Amistad Research Center in the mid-1970s, but the bulk of his papers, as well as his library, were donated by the Dent family following his death in 1998. Rather than a collection consisting solely of “high spots” of African American literature and history, Dent’s library collection is a working library that reflected his associations with a variety of fellow writers and publishers, his interests in music and modernist drama, and served as resource for Dent’s research and writing.

Inscription from artist Tom Feelings to Tom Dent in Dent's copy of Feelings' The Middle Passage.

The collection is particularly strong in African American small press publishers, such as Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, Haki R. Madhubuti’s Third World Press, and Naomi Long Madgett’s Lotus Press, and greatly expands Amistad’s holding by these seminal publishers of African American poetry and prose. A number of the books contain Dent’s annotations, which provide insight into Dent’s use and analysis of the books he owned, as well as inscriptions from friends and fellow authors, such as Felipe Smith, Andrew Young, Alvin Aubert, Tom Feelings, Kamau Brathwaite, Kalamu ya Salaam, Jerry Ward, Lorenzo Thomas, and others. An avid sports fan, Dent’s library even includes numerous statistical collections on professional baseball and football teams.

Amistad completed cataloging the 1560+ titles in the Dent library in 2011. The titles can be found in Tulane University’s library catalog by performing a keyword search using the term “Thomas Dent former owner” without quotation marks.

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