Guide to the Earl E. Thorpe Papers, 1942-1990

Collection Overview

The papers of Earl E. Thorpe - historian, clergyman, and activist - span the years 1942-1990, the bulk of the materials having been generated during the years 1965-1982. The collection consists of six series: Correspondence, Writings and Speeches, Pictures, Printed Material, Clippings, and Genealogical Papers. Primarily, materials in the collection address Thorpe's work at North Carolina Central University (formerly North Carolina College), and his stints as a visiting professor at Harvard and Duke universities. Thorpe's service as chair of the program committee for the 1979 meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), and his term as president of the ASALH in 1980 are also well represented. Personal correspondence with family and students, and material reflective of Thorpe's life in the ministry are scattered throughout.

The bulk of the collection consists of the personal and professional correspondence of Thorpe. To 1970, material in the Correspondence Series centers on departmental politics at North Carolina College - specifically confusion and dissension over Thorpe's promotion to the chair of the history department. Letters from Thorpe's daughter at Spellman College in Atlanta, missives from friends and former students, a World War II era note from Thorpe to Martha V. Branch - Thorpe's future wife - and a small amount of professional correspondence are also represented.

Beginning in 1971, correspondence turns to Thorpe's appointment as a visiting professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. The letters reveal the substance of Thorpe's classes, and the intellectual environment at Harvard - especially as it concerns the Afro-American studies department. The challenges fading the organization and the development of a viable Afro-American Studies program emerge in correspondence between Thorpe and Ewart Gunier - chair of the Harvard black studies program - letters copied to Thorpe from others, and internal memoranda from Harvard's Afro-American Studies program.

From 1972 through 1978, correspondence focuses again on Thorpe's duties at North Carolina Central University: tenure proceedings, student activism, class organization, personnel searches, and race politics on campus. Of particular interest are letters concerning the appointment of a white instructor to teach NCCU's Afro-American history survey, and the organization of the Helen G. Edmonds history colloquium. Matters unrelated to the history department or the workings of the campus are touched upon - planning for family reunions, and correspondence concerning Thorpe's health, for example.

Beginning in 1978, correspondence turns to Thorpe's duties as chair of the program committee for the 1979 meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH). In some detail, the letters recount the organization of the ASALH conference program - especially the politics and compromise involved in such a labor. Principal correspondents are ASALH officials, but included are notes from prominent African American historians. Panel and papers abstracts submitted for the committee's consideration are filed in the series marked Writings and Speeches. A number of letters and abstracts represent efforts by the Association of Black Women Historians to organize panels at the meeting.

In 1980, correspondence shifts to matters concerning Professor Thorpe's tenure as president of the ASALH. The organization of the 1981 conference in New Orleans is prominent. Correspondence pondering the future of the ASALH in light of recent mismanagement is also present. Of material not related to ASALH in this period, correspondence between Thorpe and Lerone Bennet, Jr. is especially interesting. In 1981, Thorpe charges Bennet with plagiarizing Thorpe's work in preparing a piece for Ebony magazine. As if preparing for a trial, Professor Thorpe goes so far as to collect evidence and build a case. The matter, however, is never fully resolved.

Paul Zwillenberg has written a history honors thesis probing Professor Thorpe's thoughts and writings. "I Dream a World: An Intellectual Biography of Earl Endris Thorpe" may be examined in the reading room of the Duke University Archives.

Descriptive Summary

Earl E. Thorpe papers, 1942-1990
Thorpe, Earl Endris, 1924-1989
1.7 Linear Feet, circa 1,225 Items
Duke University. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.

Administrative Information

A majority of collections are stored off site and must be requested at least 48 business hours in advance for retrieval. Contact Rubenstein Library staff before visiting. Read More »

warning Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research.

Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.

All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48 hours to retrieve these materials for research use.

Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.

warning Use Restrictions

The status of the copyright interests in the Thorpe papers is unknown. For further information, see the section on copyright in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library's Regulations and Procedures.

Contents of the Collection

Correspondence, 1944-1980, Sept.
Box 1
Correspondence, 1980, Oct.-1990
Box 2
Writings and Speeches, 1942-1989

Contains a number of Thorpe's sermon notes, tape recordings of Thorpe preaching, some of the professor's course syllabi and essays - including a discourse on Alex Haley's Roots - and abstracts sent to Thorpe in his position as chair of the1979 ASALH program committee.

Box 2
Printed Material, 1970-1989

Contains programs and publications from the ASALH, as well as various newsletters, announcements and minutes representing Thorpe's myriad political interests. Fugitive pieces from the Durham People's Alliance and the Edgemont Community Center are also included.

Box 3
Pictures, mostly1950s

Consists of photos from North Carolina College during the1950s. Subjects include John Wheeler, Alphonso Elder, Albert Turner, Benjamin Mays, Rayford Logan, and others. Copies of photos from Thorpe's personal collection are also present.

Box 3

Contains pieces written by or on Thorpe, mostly in the local press. Included is a letter Thorpe wrote to his high school newspaper while stationed in Italy during World War II. The letter criticized Durham's black leaders for what Thorpe sees as their less than principles stance on local race matters.

Box 3
Genealogical Papers,1946 and undated

Along with official papers, such as Thorpe's Army discharge and various birth certificates, the Genealogical papers contains drafts of family histories written by Thorpe.

Box 3

Two issues of The African World, 1975

Box 3


(2 boxes)

Unprocessed addition

Box 4
Guess Road
Box 4
Panhellenic Council
Box 4
Box 5
D.U. Misc. Coll.
Box 5
Misc. papers
Box 5

Historical Note

1924, Nov. 9Born, Durham, NC
1942Graduated from Hillside High School, Durham, NC
1943-1946Served in U.S. Army
1946Married Martha Vivian Branch
1948Received B.A. degree from North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University)
1949Received M.A. degree from North Carolina College
1951-1953Held various teaching positions in St. Louis, MO; Normal, AL; and Baton Rouge, LA
1953Received Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University
1962Joined history department at North Carolina College
1966Appointed chairman of the History Department at North Carolina College, previously served as acting chairman
1972Visiting professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard University
1976Ordained as minister
1978Chaired the program committee for the 1979 meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH)
1980President, ASALH
1989, Jan. 20Died, Durham, NC

Subject Headings


The papers of Earl E. Thorpe - clergyman, historian, and activist - were acquired by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library through a gift in 1982. the library acquired additions to the papers in 1985 and 1990, also through gifts.

Processing Information

Processed by: Alexander X. Byrd

Completed November 15, 1993

Encoded by Stephen Dougals Miller

This finding aid is NCEAD compliant.