In the tradition of our ancestors, Drum and Spear Bookstore was founded by and staffed with intellectually amazing people whose activism was fueled by scholars, writers, artists, and activists across many centuries. It went on to become a combination bookstore, library, community center, and iconic cultural heartbeat.
– Daphne Muse, 2020
My Early Years in D.C. and Nashville
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and still consider myself a “Chocolate City Momma”. My dad worked as a clerk at the Pentagon by day and was a private butler at night and on the weekends. Mom was a clerk in the passport division of the State Department. Little did I suspect that my work at Drum and Spear would lead to the FBI threatening them on their jobs, but all my parents would say is that I worked at a bookstore.
My initial introduction to African-American literature and the culture of the movement began when I was a student at Fisk University, and Professor Arna Bontemps hired me in 1966 to be his research assistant. My job included sorting through and organizing reams of clippings, correspondence, and manuscripts by and about writers whose names and works were all new to me, including Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks became a longstanding literary friend whose papers would be acquired by the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley because I had taken her to the train after a speaking engagement.
Into the Movement
Later, I was recruited by Mukasa Willie Ricks to work on the 1966 SNCC conference at Fisk while I was a student. I had been clandestinely attending antiwar meetings that were held by Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Jim Lawson, and I joined that movement. Had my aunt and uncle with whom I lived in Nashville known of my activities, they would have evicted me from their home. They were not on Dr. King’s program at the time and had been terrified by the 1960 bombing of Civil Rights attorney J. Alexander Looby’s home in Nashville.
In April 1967, right after Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) spoke at Vanderbilt University, an uprising broke out on Fisk’s campus and the cops were called. I just happened to be in Fisk Hall at the time, and women were lining up Coca-Cola bottles and pitching them out the windows at the cops. I was right there with them in the shock and awe of that “bring it on” moment.
After that incident, I continued to attend meetings and mimeograph flyers for events related to the Movement that were taking place on campus. A few of my fellow classmates were very actively involved in the Movement, including D.C. resident and real estate agent Phillipa Thompson Jackson and Arnette Whitmire.
Welcome to Drum and Spear
I was hired by Joe Gross, an engineer by training, who served for a brief period as a manager at Drum and Spear bookstore before he went off to East Africa to explore opportunities related to Pan-Africanism and the emerging digital world. I had gone into the bookstore to purchase books for the first-grade students I taught at Hines Elementary School in Northeast D.C. I also worked as a clerk and salesperson at Brentano’s Bookstore, America’s first chain bookstore, founded in 1853.
Joe admonished me for working for “them white people,” so I quit that job and came to work for Drum and Spear in June 1968, within weeks after the store opened.
That decision changed my life in ways I could not even begin to imagine, bringing me friendships that have lasted more than four decades, expanding my activism to a level 10+, and introducing me to the historically rich and vast world of Black lives and cultures across centuries.
Tony Gittens, Courtland Cox, Judy Richardson, Charlie Cobb, Don Brown, Freddie Greene Biddle, Anne Forester Holloway, Marvin Holloway, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Mimi Hayes, Curtis Hayes (Muhammad), and Ralph Featherstone joined Joe in welcoming me into the Drum and Spear community with a hand of trust and confidence that astounded me, for these people did not know me. With a presence that was so much more mature than their ages, I thought Joe, Charlie, Ivanhoe, Courtland, Don, and Ralph were in their fifties, not because they looked like they were but because I could not believe anybody that smart could be as young as they were and bring such an astute analysis to their thinking.
Anne Holloway was the most sophisticated young woman I had met up to that point and had a rather commanding presence. Judy, Juadine Henderson, Mimi Hayes, and some of the people at the Center for Black Education, including Cheryl Garrett, Geri Tate (Augusto), and Ivy Young extended the sisterly welcome.
Jennifer Lawson and I first met when Courtland dispatched me to work with her and community organizers Ed Brown and Charles Bannerman on the Quitman County Literacy Project in the fall of 1969. We had formed an instant bond after landing in a field of collard greens on the way from Memphis to her home in Marks, Miss., where she had painted the kitchen orange and the bathroom purple. When she moved to D.C., we worked in the bookstore together. We also worked with Courtland on the creation of Children of Africa, an intergenerational children’s coloring book written and illustrated to counter neo-imperialism in children’s literature. Our working relationship evolved into a friendship of more than four decades, in which we now support and document the work of liberation as seasoned elders.
The “University” of Drum and Spear
I read voraciously to sell books with a knowledgeable voice and provide the community with the selections best suited for their purposes. I recall having to read Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth twice and often engaging in deep conversations with Featherstone, Courtland, Anne, and Charlie to address questions and provide historical clarification for me on certain books, for so much of the history and the underpinning ideology of the struggles were new to me. I tell people I got my real education at the “University of Drum and Spear”; Joe Gross, Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Jennifer Lawson, Ralph Featherstone, Don Brown, Judy Richardson, Mimi Hayes, and Ethel Minor were the faculty and scholars-in-residence.
In addition to being a salesperson, I was a community liaison, especially with the educators who came into the store. I also worked closely with Tony and Featherstone on researching titles to order, handling customer relations, organizing events, and setting up booths to sell books at local conferences.
There were a growing number of small Black presses whose publications were in high demand, including Haki Madhubuti’s Third World Press, Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, Joseph Okpaku’s Third Press and Bogle L’Overture, a West Indian (Guyanese) publisher based in London. We worked diligently to keep their titles in stock. There were also several African publishers whose catalogues we ordered to stay abreast of titles coming from the continent, including the African Publication Society in London. When those publishers travelled to the U.S., they would come to the store with titles for us to purchase. We also had a working relationship with Una Mulzac, the owner of Liberation Books, who founded her bookstore in 1967—she carried on the tradition established by Lewis Michaux’s Memorial Bookstore, which was also known as “The House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda.”
For children, we primarily carried books by African-American authors, including poets Lucille Clifton and June Jordan, Eloise Greenfield, and author-illustrator Tom Feelings. When we could get our hands on the rare, non-stereotypical children’s books by First Nations, African, Asian-American, and Mexican-American authors, they were included.
Along with books, we carried poetry journals and magazines including Tricontinental, a fantastic publication from Cuba that featured a unique centerfold of revolutionary posters; Freedomways; Black Scholar; and a journal published by Présence Africaine, founded by Senegalese philosopher and Pan-Africanist Alioune Diop. The store also had a small cookbook selection that included Verta Mae Grosvenor’s wildly popular Vibration Cooking, Ebony Cookbook, and A Light Hand and Heart by Ruth Gaskins. I also brought back cookbooks and poetry collections from Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname when Joe Gross asked me to join him and a group of Pan-Africanists to attend the 1970 African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa Conference (ASCRIA) in Georgetown, Guyana. It was an Afro-Guyanese organization founded in the 1960s by author, politician, and radical activist Eusi Kwayana and dedicated to the revitalization of African culture in the Caribbean. This was another turning point in my life, for it opened the radical lens of African life and culture in Latin America.
Drum and Spear carried a collection of beautiful notecards and portfolios featuring the works of artists such as Tom Feelings, Kofi Bailey, and Eugene White, which were always in high demand. Keeping them in stock was a real challenge, for the artists who produced them had limited funds for production. We also purchased some crafts and children’s books from Liberty House, a New York retail outlet for the Poor People’s Cooperation, a Mississippi-based Black co‑op.
Half my salary went to purchasing books, posters, and other ephemera sold at the store. As a result, I would spend the next forty years amassing a collection of more than 20,000 books, 5,000 letters, and 35 portfolios of ephemera. ((Part of my collection, which includes some Drum and Spear material, is now housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (1960–2013).))
A Magnet for D.C. Intellectuals, A Home for African Diplomats
Along with the essentials of keeping the store running, the daily environment was filled with the voices of Black intellectuals, academics, politicians, writers, and artists, including author and historian C.L.R. James; Federal City College professor and scholar Acklyn Lynch; poets Larry Neal, Sterling Brown, Sonia Sanchez, Gaston Neal, and Amiri Baraka; then-Howard University lecturer in English Toni Morrison; and psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing.
Community members and children who came to the store to purchase books would often engage in discourse with staff and community intellectuals. Students who took classes at the New School and their parents and teachers frequented Drum and Spear. Other visitors included Edmund Gahreeb, one of the editors and contributors to Enemy of the Sun: An Anthology of Palestinian Poetry, published by Drum and Spear Press. He and some of his Palestinian comrades were especially close to Ralph Featherstone, who once presented me with some Al-Fatah stamps commemorating the Palestinian Liberation Front (1968) that the anthology’s editors had given him. I still have them in my collection.
The African diplomatic community was very supportive of the store, including Walter Bgoya, then an attaché at the Tanzanian Embassy. Chief Lenchwe Molefi Kgafela II, who was Botswana’s ambassador to the U.S. back then, came frequently to shop for books on Pan-Africanism and children’s literature. He returned to Botswana in 1971 and became president of the Customary Court of Appeal.
Then one day, in strolls Marvin Holloway with Amilcar Cabral, the Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean poet, diplomat, and revolutionary. He had just spoken at the U.N. Juadine Henderson and I were the only two people in the store, and we could not unlock our eyes from this revolutionary icon and hero, who was daringly handsome and wore an exquisite blue agbada!
The trust vested in me and my duties continued to grow exponentially and included buying trips to Bookazine (wholesale book dealers in New York City), ordering titles for stocking the store, fulfilling special orders for conferences, and organizing book signings.
During my time at the store, we hosted readings by Gwendolyn Brooks, with whom I became literary friends until she died in 2002; and Lerone Bennett, Jr., in whose arms I fainted when a tear gas canister was launched at the front of the store after a pregnant Black woman had been beaten by the police and an uprising had broken out.
We also hosted Shirley Graham DuBois, widow of W.E.B. DuBois, who read from and signed copies of her memoir, His Day is Marching On. Belvie Rooks, who played a role in the founding of the Center for Black Education, and I hosted a dinner party at Frank and Jean Smith’s apartment, and Mrs. DuBois fell in love with the carp I baked. We stayed in contact, and in 1975, I invited Graham DuBois to speak at UC Berkeley, where I taught from 1972–1975 and again in 2000.
In 1969, I worked very closely with Judy Richardson on the phenomenally successful launch of the Drum and Spear Children’s Art Contest. The contest tied in with Sa Yaa Watoto Storytelling Hour, which was produced by Mimi Hayes and aired on WOL-AM on Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tony Gittens launched a very well-run PR campaign for the outreach to local businesses in support of our efforts, and Ed Murphy’s Supper Club on Georgia Avenue hosted the winner’s party. The winners included Crystal Dixon, James Duckett, and Cathy Howard. Classes from several schools in D.C. participated, including Parkview, Drew, and the New School for Afro-American Thought (The New School). ((Documentation related to the contest and other details related to the store and press are included in the Drum and Spear section of the Daphne Muse Correspondence Collection.))
I worked closely with Freddie Greene Biddle, who served as the bookkeeper for several months, to provide documentation for filing taxes and payroll. Our vision for the store was overridden by the contradictions of operating under a “crapitalist” rubric, further compounding the challenges of running it as a business versus a community organization.
While it was seemingly endless work, we were some serious party people, too. We danced and discoursed over Marvin Gaye, Jerry Butler, and Aretha Franklin deep into the night. Charlie Cobb hosted legendary parties that lasted until sunrise. The rooms were filled with people not just from across town but those who’d bopped down from New York. Platters of jerk chicken, plantain, roti, and pots of peanut butter stew jumped up off the stove; I learned to prepare several of those dishes. Stokely Carmichael and Cleve Sellers would show up along with brothers and sisters from the Continent, including Zimbabwean activist Ndoro Vincent Vera and other folks jammin’ and droppin’ knowledge, simultaneously reflecting on the philosophies and ideologies of Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Négritude leader Leopold Senghor; and citing the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Claude McKay. Charlie would also read poems from his own collection, Furrows.
The FBI and Government Intimidation
The “Trench Coat Crew”, aka the FB&I as Juadine used to call them, were regulars at Drum and Spear. J. Edgar Hoover had a visceral disdain for everything related to Black people, and our bookstores were especially targeted. University of Baltimore scholar Dr. Joshua Davis has done an exemplary job of securing documents related to the bookstore through the Freedom of Information Act. He details some of the documentation in his book From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.
One of the first things Ralph Featherstone said to me was, “Never talk to the FBI.” I took him to heart, for I had my own detail led by an agent named Jim South. He and his trench coat cronies would come up in the store and flip books off the shelf, utter words of disdain for the books, and strut out. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which we had a hard time keeping in stock due to the demand, especially rattled them.
At night, they would follow me through the treacherous blocks of a drug-infested area I had to navigate before reaching my apartment in the comfortable neighborhood of Adams Morgan, about ten blocks from the store. I sometimes carried $3,000 on me from the day’s receipts. In hindsight, I had my own security detail, but I do wonder if they would have interceded if someone had tried to attack me. Probably not. I also think word on the street covered those of us who worked at the store.
Remembering the Remarkable Ralph Featherstone
Ralph Featherstone—D.C. native, gifted former national SNCC Program Director, educator, and a most serious community organizer—commanded the full respect of everyone he worked with across the board. Even publisher Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang personally came to deliver an order so he could talk with Featherstone. I remember times Featherstone would leave the store to have lunch with investigative journalist and writer/publisher I. F. Stone. Once, Feather reprimanded me on my customer relations when I copped a big-time attitude with a white woman who announced she had come to purchase a book for “her” Black man.
In 1970, I worked with Featherstone, Don Brown, and Judy Richardson for two days straight to move the store from 1401 14th Street, N.W., to another building around the corner at 1838 Fairmount Street, N.W. Not long after that move, Featherstone and William “Che” Payne were murdered on March 9, 1970, in an explosion in the car Ralph was driving along Route 1 in Maryland.
Featherstone’s murder happened only weeks after we had celebrated his marriage to a D.C. educator named Charlotte Orange. On the day of Featherstone’s funeral, Jennifer Lawson, Charlie Cobb, and I kept the store open. It snowed on one side of the street, and the sun was blazing in the sky on the other. Jennifer crafted the urn for his ashes; they are interred in Nigeria where Donald Brown and Charlotte took them. Through his extensive network across the Continent, Marvin arranged the logistics of their trip to Nigeria.
Featherstone’s murder turned my world inside out. I operated in a state of dazed confusion for months before moving to Phoenix, Ariz., to try and heal the hurt from his loss, which I mourn to this day. I continue to wonder what he would be like as a father and seasoned elder.
In July 1971, a grand jury subpoenaed the staff of Drum and Spear to testify in relation to some alleged bombing charges at the Mozambican Interests Section. With representation by SNCC attorney Howard Moore, the “case” vanished as quickly as it appeared. I think it was part of a fishing expedition to frame, and of course ruin, the store since previous efforts had failed. My subpoena is in the archives at Emory.
In the 1830s, David Ruggles—an abolitionist, writer, printer, and publisher—opened a bookstore in what is now known as the Tribeca area of New York. Ruggles’ store was destroyed by a mob and was under constant surveillance and attack; Drum and Spear suffered the same abuse. During the days I worked there, Drum and Spear was burglarized twice and set on fire once. The fire department was able to act swiftly enough that the damage was minor, and the burglaries resulted in some items stolen, but we did not keep money in the store.
My Drum and Spear Family
In 1971, Dad and Mom invited Charlie, Courtland, Jennifer, and Juadine to dinner. Dad served quail, and Charlie bit down on the buckshot left inside. While my dad was very discreet, there were times he would tell me to read something or say, “These are white people whom you need to know because they are shaping your life/your future.” They grew proud of the work all of us had done in the Movement, especially at the bookstore.
Along with educating me far beyond what I had learned in the classroom, Drum and Spear grew my intellectual and historical landscape far beyond anything I had imagined up to that point. It also gifted me with great long-term friendships with Jennifer, Tony, Juadine, Charlie, Courtland, and Judy, grounded in the bonds we share for liberation, justice, and self-determination.
When I moved to the Bay Area, my activism continued as the secretary for the legal defense team for the Angela Davis trial. My time at Drum and Spear also served as the launching point for me to teach at UC Berkeley and Mills College and establish myself as a faculty member who continued the ongoing struggle to decolonize the academy. I was so deeply influenced by the work Mimi Hayes, Judy Richardson, and I had done in developing the Third World Children’s Literature section at Drum and Spear that I went on to teach survey and writing courses at UC Berkeley and Mills College framed around the writing and scholarship in the children’s literature field. It also helped me launch the Right-on Rainbow Children’s Book and Film Festival; work on multicultural children’s literature projects for the Commission on Major League Baseball and Scholastic, Inc.; and develop related curricula for school districts across the country.
I always will cherish the bonds forged and enduring friendships made with people who have continued to pave the road to freedom with their brilliance, tenacity, and vision.
Daphne Muse is a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, author, poet, and cultural broker based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Copyright © 2020 Daphne Muse. All rights reserved.
Part of my collection, which includes some Drum and Spear material, is now housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (1960–2013).
Documentation related to the contest and other details related to the store and press are included in the Drum and Spear section of the Daphne Muse Correspondence Collection.
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