(EDWARDSVILLE, Ill.) Even as a cub reporter for The Alestle during the early 1960s, as it was becoming known as the student newspaper for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Eugene B. Redmond was taking photos. Little did he know he would hone that keen photo sense and go on to amass some 200,000 images during his storied career as journalist, activist, author, poet, educator and friend to nearly everyone he met over the past 60-plus years.
Redmond has donated the entire collection to SIUE's Elijah P. Lovejoy Memorial Library, where it is being catalogued for use by researchers. Eventually, portions of the collection will be displayed for the general public at Lovejoy. "We will be seeking various grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to help with preserving and displaying the collection," Redmond said. The collection of photographs and other visual memorabilia depicts arts festivals, gatherings, workshops, activist meetings, rallies, academic conferences, receptions and parties with the some of the most incredible literary lights of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in the United States, Europe, Africa and the West Indies, including publications and letters featuring these writers and cultural figures.
"The collection originally was in four different places," said Stephen Hansen, associate provost for research and dean of the SIUE Graduate School. "Many pieces were in Eugene's home, other pieces in storage lockers and more in his sister's basement. We also estimate we will spend eight hours of labor on each cubic foot of material," he pointed out.
The collection is considered a compendium of the black literary world-and its global, cross-cultural connections-as seen through Redmond's ubiquitous camera lens and in the letters, posters and flyers. Redmond, the poet laureate of East St. Louis, is a retired professor of English language and literature at SIUE, and also is considered a storyteller extraordinaire who came of age through the 60s and 70s, criss-crossing the United States as he chronicled the BAM in East St. Louis, Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. "This is an important collection for SIUE because of its regional importance, Eugene's long-time relationship with the University, and because of its national and international significance," Hansen explained. "We're planning a reading room set aside at Lovejoy Library to give researchers opportunities to view this collection.
"It's quite unique for us to have this collection," Hansen said. "Emory University and the Missouri Historical Society were vying for these materials. We're happy to announce that Eugene chose Lovejoy Library." Other venues that had sought the collection included the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans and the Schomburg Center for Research In Black Culture at the New York City Public Library.
Redmond himself calls the collection "a wonderful look at the people who made a difference in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement" as well as many other movements and causes that have been in the spotlight during the 20th and 21st centuries.
And, to look at them, the images and publications tell the tale. Eugene B. Redmond knew many of those literary lights and captured the rich, the famous, the poor and the virtually unknown in ways many will not forget. There are Pulitzer Prize winners Alex Haley, Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks; Nobel laureates Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka; National Book Award-winner Charles Johnson and Pulitzer Prize Nominee Maya Angelou. In addition, there's a young writer, LeRoi Jones, considered to be the "father" of the BAM and who later became known as the distinguished playwright Amiri Baraka, as he reads from his work in his own basement in Newark, N.J.
The list goes on: blues legend B.B. King; activist-author Angela Davis; the godfather of soul music James Brown; National Book Award-winner Ralph Ellison; BAM leader Sonia Sanchez; prima ballerina and noted anthropologist Katherine Dunham; mega bookseller Terry McMillan; novelist-essayist James Baldwin; Paris Review founding editor George Plimpton; and Pulitzer Prize-winner/native American novelist, N. Scott Momaday, to name several.
And, yes, the man also has partied with Oprah Winfrey.
Along with Rambsy and the help of a graduate assistant, Alfred Henderson II, Redmond is sifting through his collection. "Right now we're still in the 1970s in our cataloging of everything," Redmond said. "I had a large section of it at my sister's home and we moved that portion along with what I had stored on my property to the SIUE East St. Louis Center, which has graciously provided a space for us to work."
In 1961 Redmond joined The Alestle staff while he was a student at SIU's "10th Street Tech," the old East St. Louis High School. He went on to become the first "Negro" editor at the paper in 1963 at a time when such an appointment would have been extremely rare. "I went to the march on Washington as an Alestle reporter and I have photos from that in the collection," he pointed out. During that same period, Redmond helped establish three newspapers in East St. Louis, including the Monitor, where he wrote editorials and a weekly column for more than six years. In 1976, while he was teaching at California State University at Sacramento (CSUS), East St. Louis officials named Redmond that city's poet laureate, the first time a U.S. city administered such a designation.
They called Redmond the multicultural studies guru at Sacramento, where he helped establish and administer the Annual Third World Writers and Thinkers Symposia. Before heading to CSUS, he was writer-in-residence at Oberlin (OH) College. "Also, I was on the road for some 16 years giving workshops and undertaking speaking engagements around the world; then back to East St. Louis in 1985 to become assistant to the superintendent of East St. Louis Public Schools for culture and language arts, and then to Wayne State University in Detroit for a professorship." While at Wayne State, Redmond came to the attention of Earl Lazerson, a native of the Detroit area who at the time was president of SIUE. "He contacted me and asked me if I was interested in coming home and teaching at SIUE. I took the job."
At the urging of poet Henry Dumas, Redmond published his books through Black River Writers Press, with writers-poets Sherman Fowler and Jerry Herman. Redmond went on to edit and compile Dumas' work in tribute after the young poet was shot to death in New York City. That labor of love led to a collaboration and friendship with Toni Morrison, senior editor at Random House. He corresponded with her, as well as other writers including Maya Angelou, who also became a close friend-those letters are part of the Redmond Collection at Lovejoy Library.
"I have newspapers from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, chronicling various political and cultural movements, plus hundreds and hundreds of tapes of concerts, lectures and rallies," Redmond said. "There are hundreds of literary journals, anti-war studies, civil rights literature, BAM, everything that was going on with various literary movements in the country...the riots...in California. As a journalist, I felt it was important to take all of these photos to chronicle an era of change.....I also wanted to capture my travels to bring the images back to show my family and students so they would have a sense of what the movements were about in other places. I had in mind the setting up of a creative center in East St. Louis, displaying these photos, posters, flyers and correspondence so the public will become more aware of this rich history...
"It wasn't until Howard Rambsy came on board here at SIUE and convinced me of the need to move forward on my dream by saying: 'Man, we need to do something with all of this material,'" Redmond said with a laugh. "He practically lived at my house for nearly a year looking over this stuff because it was overwhelming to me. For example, I have nearly 450 photo albums filled; I have taken some 200,000 photos, not to mention the correspondence, the playbills, the handwritten notes, the letters, even the post-it notes, and, of course, hundreds of LP recordings.
"How do you put a price on this? How do you put a price on sweat, on blood, on tears," he asked rhetorically. "The fact that I got as much of it here after moving all over the world is amazing to me."