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Winter 2016

Freedman Cover

Gutman on Loan

For a year starting this fall, a little piece of Gutman Library will be on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. A rare book from Gutman's special collections called The Freedman's Spelling-Book, published in 1866, will be showcased at the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The book is so rare, says curator Nancy Bercaw, that special steps will be taken to preserve it.

"It will be displayed for one year and the pages rotated every three months to prevent deterioration of the ink," she says. "It will be displayed on a book cradle built specifically for this object. The light levels will be kept very low and there will be special light-resistant glass." She jokes that when handling the object, "we definitely use gloves!"

Bercaw says the 168-page book will be part of the museum's new slavery and freedom exhibit. It is the only curriculum-type book created specifically for freed slaves that will be displayed.

"We are featuring the speller in the section on emancipation and the importance of literacy in African American life," she says. "This theme runs throughout the exhibition and where possible we include books and newspapers written by or used by African Americans to express their vision of America."

The book was published in Boston at 28 Cornhill (what is now Boston City Hall Plaza) by the American Tract Society, a nonprofit that disseminated Christian literature. The speller was part of a series created to educate former slaves after the Civil War ended. Although designed to promote spelling and reading, the series also leaned heavily on themes like hard work, religion, and moral virtue. The Freedman's Spelling-Book, in particular, also seemed to assume that former slaves knew very little about speech. "The words which we use in speaking and writing are called language," it reads in the introduction. "The people of the United States use mostly the English language, because the first settlers came from England. Words are spoken in the throat, with the aid of the palate, the tongue, the teeth, and the lips. These are called the organs of speech."

Ed Copenhagen, director of Gutman's special collections at the time the book was transferred to the Smithsonian, says the speller has been in Harvard's collection for a long time.

"I wish I could take credit for finding the book and initiating the loan, but I cannot," he says. "It has been in Harvard's library collections since 1867!"

It was donated that year by Samuel A. Green, an 1851 graduate of Harvard College and 1854 graduate of Harvard Medical School who wore many hats: surgeon during the war, librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society, member of the Boston School Board, and, for one year, mayor of Boston.