Henry Proctor Slaughter (1871-1958)

District of Columbia neighborhoods map, 2008
Map by Peter Fitzgerald (CC BY 3.0)

Editor and bibliophile Henry Proctor Slaughter is best remembered for his vast collection of rare documents on African American history. The son of former slaves, a young Slaughter questioned the biased treatment of slavery in his school textbooks, and he spent a lifetime collecting materials that would more accurately represent African American history. He was a friend and colleague of Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, and they were longtime coeditors of the Odd Fellows Journal, a Masonic publication.

Henry Proctor Slaughter was born in Louisville, Kentucky on September 17, 1871 to Charles Henry and Sarah Jane (Smith) Slaughter. Fatherless at the age of six, Henry sold newspapers to support his family. He graduated from high school as salutatorian and began a printing apprenticeship with the Louisville Champion, an African American newspaper. In 1894 he became associate editor of another black newspaper, the Lexington Standard. He also attended Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina.

In 1896 at the age of 25, Slaughter moved to Washington, D.C., where he began a 40-year career as compositor with the U.S. Government Printing Office. His duties included designing forms and typesetting documents. In addition to his work, he enrolled in Howard University and received a bachelor of law degree in 1899 and a master of law degree in 1900, although he never practiced law.

From 1910 to 1937 he co-edited the Odd Fellows Journal with Schomburg, with whom he shared a passion for book collecting and African American history as well. The two men spent time together exploring bookshops searching for items to add to their collections. Slaughter also was known as a food connoisseur, and he and Schomburg belonged to the “Labor Day Bunch,” a group of black men who met annually in Washington, D.C. for bibliophilic discussions over gourmet meals.

Slaughter was particularly interested in rare documents about slavery, the antislavery movement, and the Civil War. He also collected materials from Africa, Haiti, and Cuba along with 50 volumes describing activities of the Ku Klux Klan. A cataloging of his collection in the 1940s numbered over 10,000 items, including books, photographs, music, sermons, political cartoons, and newspapers. It is said that piles of materials were stored in nearly every room of his three-story Washington, D.C. house, and he was very particular about who could view his collection, requiring scholarly recommendations and credentials.

Slaughter was married twice. He died on February 14, 1958 at the age of 87. His collection is now housed in the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center.