Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
James Garland Spady (1944-2020) was a writer, activist, journalist, and historian. He was born on April 2, 1944 in Capeville, Virginia to parents Emmerline Louise Spady and Tasley Leonard Townsend. Most details about Spady's childhood and early adulthood are unclear, but after graduating high school, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Several accounts state that he became active in the NAACP's Philadelphia Youth Council, which led to Spady meeting Cecil B. Moore and participating in the 1965 protest calling for the desegregation of Girard College. In 1967, James Spady was seen with Muhammad Ali at Howard University, where Ali gave a speech on Black power.
In 1968, the Black History Museum Library was founded in North Philadelphia through the work of Spady and others. The Library would only last until 1972 as a physical space, but the Black History Museum would continue to publish its "UMUM" newsletter and other materials until at least 1981. (UMUM was a term that was frequently used and perhaps coined by Spady that he told others meant "timeless.") The newsletter followed a format more closely resembling an academic journal, assembling a range of literary and scholarly content in each issue. He also helped organize a series of "UMUM" colloquia on Black history, art, and music at Swarthmore College that ran from 1974 to 1977.
In the 1970s, James Spady began writing for newspapers, primarily the Philadelphia New Observer, and would continue doing so well into the 2000s. He also authored numerous articles and essays that appeared in publications that ranged from the popular to the academic. Additionally, he authored or edited over a dozen books, and contributed introductions, chapters, and afterwards to many more. Generally speaking, Spady wrote about his observations and analysis of Black history, music, and culture, but his interests within this scope varied widely and reflect an interdisciplinary style that defies easy categorization. As a brief example, he could just as easily provide a first-hand account of an up and coming black musical artist's performance at a local Philadelphia venue, offer a corrective historiography on the importance of Black folklorist and poet Sterling A. Brown, or expound on his thoughts of the African diaspora and the philosophy of Cheikh Anta Diop.
James Spady became particularly well known for documenting the origins of Hip Hop music and applying intellectual seriousness to its study. Spady situated Hip Hop within the framework of Black artistic and musical expression and its history. This seriousness partially explains his success interviewing and sometimes befriending many notable and lesser known Black musicians and artists, which in turn informed the four books he wrote or co-wrote about Hip Hop. The significance of his work is noted by historian Samir Meghelli, who notes that, "James G. Spady's body of work represents one of the most important sources for the rethinking and rewriting of Hip Hop history." (1)
The photographer Leandre Jackson was an important collaborator for Spady and he accompanied him on many of his interviews. They first met each other at Swarthmore College at one of the UMUM colloquia where Jackson was a sophomore. Jackson and Spady often discussed ways that words and images together could better represent the subject being interviewed. As a result, Jackson would often take candid photographs during Spady's interviews, as well as taking more formal portraits of each subject.
Many accounts from those who knew James Spady well describe him as being an extremely private man. For example, no one knew for sure where he lived, except that it was likely somewhere in West Philadelphia. In other respects, Spady lived a very public life and a good deal of his spare time seems to have been spent cultivating an intellectual community of like-minded people around Philadelphia and beyond. Affectionately known as the "The Spady School" by those who came into his orbit, his "classes" were informal and took place in various locations around the city, including Penn Library or the McDonalds on 40th and Walnut Street. When Ph.D. student Tom Perchard came to Philadelphia from London in 2003 to do research on jazz musician Lee Morgan, word of mouth led him to James Spady. Perchard recalls long hours in conversation and debate, as well as visits with Spady to Atlantic City. "This was a seminar series that had nothing to with university, but everything to do with scholarship, learning, the sharing and testing of ideas. Spady's generosity of time, spirit, and attention was overwhelming." (2)
James Spady's numerous accomplishments include documenting and telling the stories of important Black Philadelphians. For instance, he wrote a biography of Black Arts Movement playwright Larry Neal, campaigned for and wrote the text to an historical exhibit on Cecil B. Moore installed by SEPTA at the Cecil B. Moore subway station, and wrote a biography of Georgie Woods, the noted civil rights activist and Philadelphia radio DJ. Also noteworthy was Spady's enduring interest in Marcus Garvey, which led to the publication of several books and articles about Garvey, as well as a longtime commitment to the Marcus Garvey Memorial Foundation, an educational non-profit. As a board member of the Foundation, his responsibilities included reviewing and awarding grants and scholarships to applicants seeking educational opportunities.
James Spady's health began to fail him in 2018 and this would eventually lead to his entering long-term care, and finally his death on February 17, 2020. According to obituaries, friends and admirers that attended his funeral service had been unaware of his ill health – another example of how he kept parts of his life very private. Obituary details also note that Spady had been the recipient of an American Book Award in 1988, as well as a Newspaper Publishers Association's Meritorious Award. While he had no children or spouse, James Spady was survived by his brother, Larry Allen, along with is sister-in-law, Andrea Allen and niece, Jeriba Allen. James Spady is buried in Merion Memorial Park.
1 – Meghelli, Samir, "Remixing the Historical Record: Revolutions in Hip Hop Historiography," The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 37, No. 2, 2013.
2 – Perchard, Tom, "Doing Musical Fieldwork with James G. Spady," Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2013.
Meghelli, Samir, "James G. Spady, 75, writer and historian," The Philadelphia Tribune, March 20, 2020
Russ, Valerie, "Remembering a cultural historian and hip-hop scholar whose "Spady School" reshaped the lives of Penn students," Philadelphia Inquirer, March 17, 2020
James G. Spady papers, 1920-2020, Ms. Coll. 1509, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.
The James G. Spady papers contains notepads and notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, books, a large variety of articles and essays, interview transcripts, periodicals, audio compact discs, computer media, and ephemera. Broadly speaking, these materials reflect Spady's expansive interest in Black history and culture, particularly music, and is comprised of both his own writing and material that he collected on these topics. The collection primarily documents his professional and intellectual work from roughly 1980 onward. With the exception of some writing that is authored by others, very little in the collection reveals anything about his personal life.
The James G. Spady papers is arranged into 10 series, as follows:
Series I - Notepads and notebooks
These 32 letter size notepads, 4 notebooks, and loose notepad pages are filled with James Spady's handwritten notes. An organizational theme is difficult to discern, with Spady's handwriting filling nearly every available space and direction. The overall style resembles free writing that makes topics challenging to find, but it appears to range from mundane day to day notes and reminders, to more developed thoughts on various topics. The handwriting can also be difficult to read, so potential research using these notebooks will likely be challenging.
Series II – Correspondence
This series consists primarily of paper print outs of email conversations between Spady and others, with some spanning several years or more. Traditional letters make up only a very small portion of the overall correspondence. The nature of the correspondence is a mix of business and personal, with topics such as conversations with publishers, discussions among board members of the Marcus Garvey Memorial Foundation, and the sharing of news between friends and colleagues. Some of the people seen in the Spady correspondence also show up elsewhere in the collection, such as the scholars George Yancy, Tom Perchard, and Samir Meghelli. Arranged chronologically.
Series III – Writing
The writing series is itself broken into four sub-series:
Subseries A – Newspapers
This subseries contains examples of Spady's writing for The Philadelphia New Observer from 1971 to 2014, as well as a small selection from The Philadelphia Tribune in 1986. In most cases, only the article is included, not the entire edition of the paper. Arranged chronologically.
Subseries B – Articles, essays, and manuscripts by Spady
This subseries includes a variety of articles and other writings by James Spady. In many cases, these pieces take the form of a photocopy or extract from a journal or other periodical, but for others it isn't always clear whether or not they were published. Topics are mostly related to Hip Hop music and culture, but others subjects include jazz, Marcus Garvey, Georgie Woods, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Cecil B. Moore. Arranged alphabetically by title.
Subseries C - Books, authored by Spady
This subseries includes copies of books that James Spady authored or co-authored. Arranged alphabetically by title.
Subseries D – Works, contributed by Spady
This subseries contains examples of books, journals, and other publications, to which James Spady contributed chapters, introductions, forwards, afterwards, or edited. Arranged alphabetically by title.
Series IV – Photographs
This series contains a variety of photographs and images found in the larger collection. It is unclear who took most of these photographs, although Leandre Jackson is identified on the black and white contact sheets, so presumably he took some or all of the black and white photographic prints. Almost all the photographs are unidentified, with minimal contextual information. A handful of photographs show James Spady individually or with what appear to be friends. The majority of photographs are color 4x6 prints that appear to be of interviews of Hip Hop artists or their performances. Spady can be seen in some of the photographs as the interviewer, so it's unlikley he was the photographer.
Series V – Biographical
This series contains a small amount of material that is either about James Spady or his family. Of particular interest is a printed bibliography of Spady's writing from 1995.
Series VI – Interview Transcripts
These interview transcripts are of two sorts: those that have an identified interviewer(s) and those that do not. James Spady is not listed on any of the identified transcripts, but Spady is known to have conducted numerous interviews and it is possible that the unattributed transcripts may be attributed to him.
Series VII – Projects and Other Work
This series represents activities in which James Spady made significant contributions, such as with the Black History Museum, the Cecil B. Moore SEPTA panel project, the Marcus Garvey Memorial Foundation, and the UMUM colloquia held at Swarthmore College.
Series VIII - Research Files
Evidence of James Spady's research activities can be seen throughout the collection by the large number of photocopied articles and book extracts related to his interests. Also found are copies of archival materials from other repositories, such as Howard University. Some of the most commonly seen subjects relate to Mercer Cook, Cheikh Anta Diop, Leandre Jackson, Ahmad Aboul Malik Monk, and Hilyard R. Robinson.
Series IX – Collected Materials
This series represents a large set of materials that are not clearly connected to James Spady. It is comprised of papers, journals, books, music, periodicals, computer and video media, newspapers, artwork, and ephemera. As a whole, they do not reflect James Spady's work, but presumably were collected by him. Many of the papers are incomplete or difficult to identify.
Among the collected marterial are numerous audio compact discs, which may be of interest to researchers due to Spady's personal and academic interst in Black musicians. It is unclear if the compact discs that are copies, whether or not they were given to Spady or if he made the copies himself.
List of audio compact discs: Ashley Dubose – Be You, Best of Brick, Best of Parliament, Big Mike – That Was My Jointz, Blazin Old School, Bootsy – Back in the Day, Brass Construction – Classic Masters, Camee, Chic – The Very Best of, Classic Soul Hits – Volume 5, Curtis Mayfield, DJ Curt – Flash Backs part 1, DJ Curt – Flash Backs part 2, DJ Curt Present – Soul 70's, DJ Edmoney – Bee Bop, DJ Kid Capro – 52 Beats, Earth Wind and Fire – Greatest Hits, Electric Funk, Electric Wonderland – compilation, Funky Stuff – The Best of Funk Essentials, Gerald Levert – Best of, Greatest Slow Jams, Harold Jones – Just As I Am, Harold Jones – Let Us Break Bread Together, Harold Jones – Lil Lite o' Mine, Hip Hop Classics, Hip Hop Mixes, I just Can't Be Happy Today – compilation, I Just Can't Be Happy Today – Mojo, Kool and the Gang, Luther Vandross, Meek Mill – Championships, Ohio Players – Funk on Fire, Old School, Old School Funk, Old School Philly Cook Out, Roy Ayers – The Best of, Slow Jam – Vol 2, Sugar Hill Gang – Rapper's Delight, Teddy Pendergrass, Teddy Pendergrass – Best of, That's My Jawn – Old School Hip Hop disk 2, The Best of War and More, The Brothers Johnson – The Very Best of, The Dramatics – The Dramatic Jackpot, The Last Poets – Transcending Toxic Times, The O'Jays – Smooth Love, The Whispers, Tower of Power, WDAS 105.3 FM Classic Soul Hits Vol 2, Wttodini
Series X – Medical and financial records (restricted)
This series contains medical and financial records as well as other material considered personal or sensitive. Access is restricted until 2053.
I. Notepads and notebooks
a. The Philadelphia New Observer
b. The Philadelphia New Observer (photocopies)
c. Articles, essays, and manuscripts
d. Books, authored
e. Works, contributed
VI. Interview transcripts
VII. Projects and other work
VIII. Research files
IX. Collected material
X. Medical and financial records (restricted)
Gift of Erik Williams and Jeriba Allen, 2022.
This collection arrived in a very disorganized state without any discernable order by James Spady. Therefore, the arrangement had to be imposed by the archivist relying on implied order as much as possible.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Kenneth Cleary
- Finding Aid Date
- August 3, 2023
- Access Restrictions
The bulk of this collection is open for research use, however, Box 13 is restricted until 2053 because it contains personal medical and financial information.
Use of the original audio and video media in box 7 is restricted. If the original does not already have a copy, it may be sent to an outside vendor for copying. Patrons are financially responsible for the cost. The turnaround time from the time of request to delivery of digital items will depend on the nature of the material and is subject to review for condition. Please contact the Kislak Center (firstname.lastname@example.org) for cost estimates and ordering. Researchers should be aware of specifics of copyright law and act accordingly.
Use of the 3.5 inch diskettes in Box 7 is restricted. The computer files originally stored on the flash drive have been processed and are available for research use (see items described as "Digital Content Reading Room Access Only" along the right-hand side in the Collection Inventory. These computer files are reading-room access only on a dedicated computer in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.