History & Culture

Engraving Project at Central Library

Considered one of the most outstanding buildings in the U.S, Central Library opening on October 8, 1917. It became a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. A six-story glass and steel-framed addition opened in 2007. Both the original building and the 2007 addition included a unique architectural feature, the names of iconic authors and literary figures carved into the building’s litmestone walls. Of the 80+ names memorialized in this fashion, the original project included just five women and no authors of color. In 2021, due to major support from Michael & Adelpha Twyman, the Dr. Michael R. Twyman Endowment Fund, and Lilly Endowment Inc., The Library added ten names to improve representation of the world’s historical, literary, and artistic development.

The Vision

In 2021, Dr. Michael Twyman set out to develop a plan to include names on the walls of Central Library. “As a longtime Indianapolis Public Library patron, I brought to Library officials’ attention the omission of persons of color represented in the names engraved at Central Library. I’m excited to be working with them to address this,” said Twyman.

Community Input

To begin the project, The Library invited the community to suggest names via an online form and ballot boxes at Library locations. From the community suggestions, a committee selected names ten names representative of the world’s historical, literary, and artistic development.

The Unveiling

A public unveiling on April, 2022, celebrated Dr. Twyman’s vision. “The Name Engraving Project allows IndyPL to use our public spaces to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, starting with the addition of Black authors outside of the Center for Black Literature & Culture,” said Nichelle M. Hayes, IndyPL’s interim CEO. “By creating a space that celebrates the work of authors from the African Diaspora, we’ll reflect an authentic historical narrative of the world’s literary development.”

Further Support

The Library aims to add additional names of authors of color in the years to come. To provide further support for this project, go to “Give” at The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation to make an online donation. Please select “Central Library” when asked how to apply your gift. Put “ENGRAVING” in the notes box at the end of the form.

Learn more about the ten authors added this year by browsing the authors’ biographies. We have also provided book lists for easy checkout of their work.

Selected Authors

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatley was the first African American author to publish a book of poetry in America. She was a slave at the time. Seized in Senegal/Gambia, West Africa, she was about seven years old when purchased on the Boston docks by Susanna and John Wheatley in August of 1761. Described in a contemporaneous account as being nearly naked, with “no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet around her.” She was named after the slave ship that transported her.

A domestic slave, Wheatley learned to read and write (including the Bible, British literature, Greek and Latin.) At 13 she published her first poem. By 1771 her work had brought her international acclaim. At 18 she gathered a collection of 28 poems but was unable to get the collection published in America due to being an African. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in England in 1773. A group of Boston luminaries, including John Hancock and Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, examined her and signed an attestation that concluded that she had written the poems.

Elegies comprise one-third of her canon. The poems that best demonstrate her abilities employ classical and neoclassical themes and techniques. Two great influences were the Bible and 18th century evangelical Christianity. The remainder of her themes can be classified as celebrations of America

Wheatley was manumitted in 1774, married John Peters a free Black, and bore three children who died. She continued to write and publish but was never able to publish her second volume possibly due to the Revolutionary War and the poor economy which were particularly harsh for free blacks. She fell into deep poverty. Sick and destitute she died at the age of 31. Wheatley Peters wrote perhaps 145 poems, but this artistic heritage is now lost.

Early 20th century critics of Black American literature judged her poetry for the absence of a sense of identity as a Black enslaved person. Until recently, her critics did not consider her use of biblical allusion nor its symbolic application as a statement against slavery. Recent scholarship has uncovered her association with 18th century Black abolitionists and her use of art to undermine the institution of slavery. See our Phillis Wheatley book list.

Information quoted from an essay by Sondra A. O’Neale, Emory University, on the Poetry Foundation website.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was an extraordinary leader and abolitionist. He escaped slavery to become one of the greatest orators in modern history and was instrumental in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. His youth in slavery was particularly horrific, yet he managed to steal away time to learn to read. Douglass also managed to snatch what education he could, and share it with his fellow slaves, despite the threat of severe punishment. After his escape at the age of 21, he had a difficult time finding work until he was unexpectedly asked to speak at an abolitionist gathering. His harrowing story and captivating presentation garnered the attention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The Society hired him to go on a lecture tour of the northern United States. In 1845 he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.

Douglass published a newspaper, the North Star in Rochester, New York. Its office served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. He campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and when Civil War broke out he encouraged Black Americans to become soldiers. He believed war was the only way slavery would be abolished. After the war he established a new newspaper in Washington D.C. and was appointed to different public service positions. Douglass advocated for the underdog literally until the day he died of a heart attack in 1895 – the same evening he delivered a speech to suffragists at a meeting of the National Council of Women. See our Frederick Douglass book list.

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963)

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) was a civil rights activist and scholar who believed in and fought for the intellectual, economic, and legal equality of Black people around the world. His passion and vigor that lasted into his 90s. He was the first Black American to get a doctorate from Harvard University, and his book The Souls of Black Folk transformed the civil rights movement in the United States.

DuBois challenged the work and ideas of other Black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. He advocated for Black Americans to embrace their African heritage rather than working to assimilate. DuBois was a founding member of the NAACP and is considered one of the architects of the Black protest movement in the United States. He is widely considered to be the most influential Black thinker of the first half of the 20th century. See our W.E.B. DuBois book list.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) 

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a prolific poet, short story writer, lyricist, and novelist. He is perhaps best remembered for writing the line that inspired Maya Angelou’s memoir title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in his poem Sympathy. Born to two emancipated slaves, he went on to create an immense body of work that has confounded critics and delighted readers for generations.

Though he died young of tuberculosis at 33, he was one of the first Black Americans to gain an international following and to make his living solely by writing. During his lifetime he was loved especially for his poems that celebrate the complexities of the Black dialect of the time. His contributions to literature go far beyond those works. Though some critics feel his work romanticized plantation life, others feel he gave a voice to those that had not been heard before and opened doors for future Black creators.

Dunbar started his professional writing career during his high school years in Dayton, Ohio. Despite the challenge of being the only Black student at his high school, he was well-liked by his peers and academically gifted from a young age. He had several poems published in the local paper, wrote the class song, and was class president. His first foray into professional writing after high school was creating a newspaper for the Black community with the help of his close friend, Orville Wright. The newspaper was not able to make ends meet however, and with no money for college Dunbar had to find work elsewhere, as an elevator operator.

Working blue collar jobs never kept him from writing. He was well-known for crafting poems in his spare moments and was influenced by the dialect work of poets such as James Whitcomb Riley and James Russell Lowell. His first book, Oak and Ivy, he published with his own money but quickly sold enough to cover what he spent. This allowed him to start touring the country and meeting other poets, writers, and critics. His second book, Majors and Minors, gained critical attention and he soon became a near celebrity. Black and white audiences alike loved his work and he was the first Black American poet to gain an international audience – spending six months in England on a reading tour.

On his return he went to work at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, but soon left to write full-time and to take care of his deteriorating health. He married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore, and changed his focus from poetry to short stories, novels, and plays. In 1899 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. On advice from a doctor he medicated with whiskey, and his relationship with Moore suffered greatly. They separated in 1902, and he moved in with his mother in Ohio until his death in 1906. See our Paul Laurence Dunbar book list.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, folklorist, playwright, and anthropologist. She was born in 1891 and grew up in the small town of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was the first incorporated and self-governing all-Black city in the United States. Hurston’s passion for folklore began while hanging out by the town general store listening to stories told by local townsfolk. Her life in Eatonville inspired a lot of her work.

Hurston’s love of writing began at Howard University where she published her first short story. Soon after, she moved to New York and began her writing career. She became close friends with Langston Hughes, with whom she would later collaborate on a play. Her essays, stories, and novels were celebrated as part of the Harlem Renaissance, especially her literary masterpiece “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

While in New York, Hurston became the first Black student to attend Barnard College at Columbia University. She began studying anthropology with a focus on African American folklore. Hurston traveled through the American South, including to her hometown of Eatonville, collecting folklore. She was instrumental in saving these folktales and songs from disappearing over time. Hurston also traveled to New Orleans and Haiti to study West African Vodun, widely recognized as voodoo, and eventually became initiated in the religion. She published several books and essays about the folklore she collected, including the book “Mules and Men.” She also published the book “Tell My Horse” about her experience with voodoo in Haiti. See our Zora Neale Hurston book list.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967)

Born James Mercer Langston Hughes February 1, 1901, previously believed to be 1902, died May 22, 1967, from prostate cancer.

Langston Hughes was a pioneer of modern black literature and a major voice of the Harlem Renaissance. His work reflected the life and struggles of Black America of the time and captured the dialect and rhythms of the people. He was a poet, novelist, journalist, and mentor to young writers.

Born in Joplin Missouri, he eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was there that he began writing for his school magazine. After leaving school, Hughes worked odd jobs as an assistant cook, busboy, and launderer, while observing life in Harlem and working on his poetry. He had a brief job as a steward on a freighter that took him to Africa and Spain.

Hughes’ first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 to mixed reviews, but it was enough to earn him royalties and a sponsorship to finally attend Lincoln University to study poetry. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published four years later and won the Harmon gold medal for literature. He went on to write more poems, novels, plays, and his autobiography, The Big Sea. Through it all, his work continued to explore themes of the urban, working-class Black Americans of the time.

On May 22, 1967, Hughes died from complications of prostate cancer. A tribute to his poetry, his funeral contained little in the way of spoken eulogy but was filled with jazz and blues music. His ashes were interred beneath the entrance of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The inscription marking the spot features a line from Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It reads: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” See our Langston Hughes book list.

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Richard Wright was a novelist, poet, journalist, and champion of social and racial justice. He is best known for his works chronicling the struggles of African Americans in the Southern United States. Wright spent his childhood moving frequently, first from Mississippi, where he was born, to Memphis, Tennessee, where his father abandoned the family. Escaping poverty and hunger, his mother took Wright and his brother to live with her sister in Arkansas. Over the next few years, Wright travelled back and forth between Arkansas and Jackson, Mississippi, where his grandmother lived. Despite the many interruptions to his education, Wright showed academic promise. From 1920-1925, he lived with his grandmother in Jackson, where he attended two schools. He published his first story at age 15 in the local Black newspaper, the Southern Register. And at his junior high school in Jackson, Wright graduated as the class valedictorian.

In 1925, when Wright was 17, he returned to Memphis for two years. While there, he developed a passion for reading books and other publications, including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s magazine. In 1927, Wright moved to Chicago, where he would spend the next decade. While living in Chicago, he worked as a postal clerk and attended meetings at a Communist literary organization, the Chicago John Reed Club. During this time, Wright wrote poems for New Masses and other left-leaning publications. He also completed his first novel, founded the South Side Writers’ Group, and worked with the National Negro Congress.

In 1937, Wright moved to New York and became the editor of the Daily Worker in Harlem. He wrote more than 200 articles in his first year there. In 1946, he visited Paris, France, and in 1948, he decided to move there permanently. While living in Paris, Wright became a local celebrity, befriended existentialist philosophers, and joined the Pan-African organization Presence Africaine. He traveled throughout Europe giving lectures and appeared on television and radio programs. Wright continued working on various literary projects in Paris until his death, in 1960. Wright left behind a body of work that included fiction and nonfiction, numerous articles and essays, and thousands of poems. See our Richard Wright book list.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James Baldwin’s early origins as a writer revolve around aspects of life including using his local public library. He once described his usage of The New York Public Library’s 135th Street Branch stating, “I went to the 135th Street library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there. I mean, every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me. And I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw and the life I lived.”

Making connections between books and the life he saw and lived is a good and reflective way to describe aspects of his writing. The people he knew, religion and the church, the discrimination he faced, the love he shared with men, the schools he attended, and his creativity all helped make Baldwin an important writer and observer of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, sexual freedom, and society.

Baldwin started his life in Harlem, New York City in 1924. He took care of his family by working jobs to support them after his stepfather passed away in 1943. In the mid-1940s, he spent some time living in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He continued to develop as a writer with the help of mentors and fellowships. He wrote many of his works while living abroad over the course of multiple decades.

Baldwin still spent time living in the U.S. writing and speaking about matters related to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and racism as a whole. He had some work published in the 1980s before his death. He continued writing up until his death due to stomach cancer in 1987. Those who paid tribute to him at the time of his passing noted that he experienced success writing fiction, nonfiction, and for the theater. See our James Baldwin book list.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Maya Angelou was an American poet, author, and actor best known for her collection of memoirs. Born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4th, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson, Angelou spent much of her childhood bouncing between her mother’s home in Missouri and her paternal grandmother’s home in Stamps, Arkansas.

Following a traumatic event in her childhood, Angelou chose to stop speaking for several years, fearing that her voice had the power to kill a person. By her own account, she used literature and poetry to help cope with the trauma and eventually began speaking again. At the age of 16, Angelou gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson, and became the first Black female streetcar driver in San Francisco.

She spent the next 15 years working a wide variety of jobs to support herself and Guy. At times she worked as a fry cook, auto-body worker, dancer, magazine editor, and sex worker. She adopted the name Maya Angelou during a stint as a Calypso singer. ‘Maya’ after a nickname her brother had given her and ‘Angelou’ from the last name of her husband at the time, Angelos.

In 1959, Angelou moved to New York to pursue her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and published her first work and became active in the Civil Rights Movement working to organize fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She also attempted to co-found a civil rights organization with Malcom X.

Interested in becoming a poet and playwright, she began writing her autobiography in 1968 after her editor, Robert Loomis, challenged her to do so. She published the first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969 and it soon gained national acclaim. She would go on to publish six more autobiographical volumes, in addition to several collections of poetry and a couple of cookbooks. Bolstered by her success, Angelou was invited to speak at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She was a frequent fixture on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou passed away on May 28th, 2014 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she had lived since 1981. See our Maya Angelou book list.

Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Toni Morrison is one of the most important writers of the Twentieth Century and is an American treasure. She chronicled the African American experience in her novels asking questions about race and identity. There is a lyricism to her writing detailing heart-breaking subject matter. Morrison’s writing received the highest honors for literature including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Foundation’s Medal, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1993 she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931. Her parents who had escaped sharecropping and racial violence in the South for opportunities in the North. They settled in a steel town on the shores of Lake Erie. Her family instilled in her a love of reading. Morrison recounts that her grandfather learned to read at a time when it was illegal for him to do so. Teaching African Americans how to read was forbidden. Morrison rightly surmises, “reading is a revolutionary act.” Being an avid reader, Morrison spent her childhood at the Public Library, eventually getting a job shelving books. Morrison admits she spent too much time reading the books instead of shelving them, and eventually moved to the cataloging department.

After high school, she enrolled at Howard University, majoring in English and earning her degree in 1953. She continued her studies at Cornell University, earning an MA in 1955. She went on to teach English at Texas Southern University and then returned to Howard University. There she married, had two sons, and divorced. As a single mother, she moved to New York to become a textbook editor at Random House and became interested in developing a canon of Black work, helping to publish Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, Angela Davis, and Muhammad Ali. In those days, Morrison recalls that she was not marching in the streets. Instead, she would do what she could from where she was, helping to publish voices and ideas of Black Americans, creating a record that would last.

During her time at Random House, Morrison began writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Published in 1970, she explored the standards of beauty and childhood trauma, specifically asking the question, how does a child learn self-loathing? While working full-time as an editor, Morrison continued writing novels publishing Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby. In 1988, Morrison published her masterpiece, Beloved, which attained both critical and commercial success. It was eventually translated to film, starring Oprah Winfrey. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and has been hailed the best work of American fiction.

In her lifetime, Morrison wrote 11 novels, as well as essays, plays, and operas. She also collaborated with her son, Slade Morrison, on several children’s books. Morrison joined the faculty of Princeton University, becoming the first African American woman to hold a named chair at an Ivy League institution. In 2012, she was awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Morrison passed away August 5, 2019 in New York. Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” See our Toni Morrison book list and our Toni Morrison book list for kids.

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