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George W. Forbes Papers

Call Number: MS Am.282

Scope and Contents

This collection consists of correspondence sent to George W. Forbes, as well as typescript drafts of 18 biographies of eminent Black historical figures that Forbes wrote. Several letters to Elizabeth H. Forbes are also included.

The correspondence in the collection reflects Forbes’ work as a writer and scholar, particularly with respect to his biographical research. Individual letters document his working methods, the reception of his articles, and his relationships with other librarians, scholars, and public figures. Forbes’ correspondents include Arturo Schomburg, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anderson R. Abbott, John R. Lynch, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others.

Forbes’ biographical writings summarize the lives and accomplishments of William G. Allen, Benjamin Banneker, Edward M. Bannister, George A.P. Bridgewater, Daniel Coker, Alexander Crummell, Paul Cuffee, George F. Grant, George M. Horton, William Cooper Nell, William P. Powell, John S. Rock, Elijah W. Smith, James McCune Smith, James Monroe Trotter, David Walker, George W. Williams, and Peter Williams.


  • 1900-1936


Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use.

George W. Forbes (1864-1927)

George W. Forbes (George Washington Forbes) was a journalist, civil rights advocate, librarian, and scholar who was for many years a prominent voice in two of Boston’s earliest Black newspapers -- the Courant and the Guardian. He was a member of the Massachusetts Racial Protective Association and played an ancillary role in the founding of the Niagara Movement, which was a forerunner of the NAACP. In 1896, he became the first Black librarian in the Boston Public Library system.

Forbes was born in 1864 in Shannon, Mississippi, to William and Sarah Forbes, both of whom had been emancipated from slavery the prior year. At the age of 14, he moved to Ohio, where he studied at Wilberforce University. In the mid-1880s, he moved to Boston, eventually working to support himself as a laborer at Harvard University before enrolling at Amherst College, from which he graduated in 1892. He edited the Boston Courant from 1892 through 1897. In 1901, Forbes co-founded the Guardian with William Monroe Trotter. He left the paper in 1903, but continued to write, publishing articles and reviews in The Crisis, the Springfield Republican, the A.M.E Church Review, and the Boston Transcript, while also working to compile biographies of eminent Black historical figures, which he planned to publish in a book. He married Elizabeth Harley, of Kingston, New York, in November, 1900.

In 1896, while he was still editing the Courant, Forbes was hired into the first cohort of librarians to staff the Boston Public Library’s newly-opened West End branch. He would go on to work at the branch for more than 30 years. Over the course of his career at the BPL, Forbes garnered a reputation for mentorship to generations of young readers in the Black, Jewish, and European immigrant communities of the city’s old West End. After his death in 1927, Forbes was eulogized in both the local and national press, including in the Jewish Daily Forward, where he was remembered for the years of service he had rendered, through his librarianship, to Boston’s Jewish community.

Elizabeth H. Forbes (1865-1942)

Elizabeth H. Forbes was born Mary Elizabeth Harley in 1865 in Kingston, New York, to William Hanson G. Harley and Cordelia “Delia” Harley. Her grandfather, Thomas Harley, had been active in the Underground Railroad and her father, William H.G. Harley, a barber, was a veteran of the Union Navy and a prominent resident of Kingston. Forbes was a trained musician and a graduate of Kingston Academy. In 1907, she helped to organize the third annual meeting of the Niagara Movement, which took place in Boston. In 1909, Elizabeth Forbes was elected President of the Mrs. John A. Andrew Tent 1, Dorchester, of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and she was an early member of and served as secretary for the League of Women for Community Service (LWCS) in Boston. After the death of her husband, George W. Forbes, she worked at the Boston Public Library.


.23 Cubic Feet (1 box)


This collection consists of correspondence sent to George W. Forbes, as well as typescript drafts of 18 biographies of eminent Black historical figures that Forbes had compiled for his unpublished book.


Arranged in three series: Correspondence to George W. Forbes, 1900-1927, Correspondence to Elizabeth H. Forbes, 1927-1936, George W. Forbes research files and writings, 1900-1927.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Elizabeth H. Forbes, circa 1936-1942.

Related Materials

For correspondence from and about George W. Forbes and to and from Elizabeth H. Forbes see W.E.B. Du Bois papers (MS 312), University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


The following resources were consulted in writing the biographical notes for George W. Forbes and Elizabeth H. Forbes.
  • Biographical Record of the Alumni and Non-Graduates of Amherst College, (Classes ‘72-’96), edited by William Lewis Montague. Amherst: Carpenter & Morehouse, 1901.
  • Hopkins, Pauline E. Daughter of the Revolution: the Major Nonfiction Works of Pauline E. Hopkins, edited by Ira Dworkin. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
  • Rosenberg, Charles. “George Washington Forbes.” In African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks-Higginbothom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Rummel, Jack. African American Social Leaders and Activists. New York: Facts on File, 2003.

Processing Information

Formerly part of the MS Am collection of manuscripts.

Materials in this collection were preliminarily cataloged in the 2020 American Manuscripts Collection retrospective conversion project (AM1), and added to the electronic catalog from catalog cards or earlier typed lists of manuscripts. Item descriptions were then converted to a finding aid to ease access to complete collections and materials with shared provenance.

Select material in this collection was digitized from microfilm. The digitized content may not represent the full contents of the collection.
Guide to the George W. Forbes Papers
Under Revision
Jay Moschella and Eve Neiger
2021 April
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

About this library

Part of the Boston Public Library Archives & Special Collections Repository

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