In 1904, collector, archivist, historian, and social personality Alexander Gumby (full name Levi Sandy Alexander Gumby; 1885-1961) moved from Maryland to Harlem, where he remained for the rest of his life. He is known for two main achievements: compiling over 150 scrapbooks that record African-American history from the 19th to the mid-20th centuries and operating the well-known Gumby Book Studio.
His life-long, self-described “obsession” with creating scrapbooks resulted in his famed collection of rare books, manuscripts, and volumes of photographs, pamphlets, artwork, clippings, and ephemera of black culture. Gumby therefore played an early and significant role in preserving and disseminating African-American history.
By 1925, his 2-½ room apartment in this rowhouse became so crowded that he leased the entire second-floor unpartitioned office with large windows overlooking the street. This became the Gumby Book Studio. Charles W. Newman, a financier and sometime romantic partner, assisted with financial support. Gumby envisioned the studio as part workspace, part exhibition space, and part artistic and literary salon.
The studio officially opened in 1926 and was furnished with bookshelves lining the walls, a grand piano, and Persian carpets. For the next five years, Gumby hosted parties, performances, exhibitions, and receptions for nearly every literary and artistic figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Gay attendees included Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Wallace Thurman.
“He was the Great God Gumby, God of his studio, God of all he surveyed, and God could do no wrong. He allowed himself luxury of temperament…He was a true person and in reality he was the God he called himself.”
Gumby was a charismatic host often performing his own sexually explicit sonnets and earning such nicknames as “Mr. Scrapbook,” “Great God Gumby,” and “The Count.” According to Nugent, a close friend, Gumby was the Beau Brummel of his friends, wearing “Fancy clothes, a perennial walking stick, pale yellow kid gloves, and a diamond stick-pin…”
The studio ultimately closed in 1931 after Newman lost millions in the 1929 stock market crash and Gumby faced health issues. In 1950 he donated his materials, which he titled The L.S. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana, to Columbia University. Gumby continued to add to his scrapbooks until his death.