Civil Rights Tour: Political Empowerment - Drum and Spear Bookstore

1371 Fairmont Street NW

“That was the whole point of the store…to have a space where Black people, whatever their political persuasions were, or maybe they didn’t have any political persuasions…could encounter ideas, could encounter serious thought, could think about the idea of Black liberation.” (Charlie Cobb on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU, 2018)

The Drum and Spear Bookstore, which operated from 1968 to 1974, specialized in books by and about Black people. The bookstore, founded by Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox, Judy Richardson and Curtis Hayes (later Curtis Muhammed)--all veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--and Tony Gittens who became its first manager, was a literary oasis steeped in the Black Power and Black Consciousness movements. It served as a local, national and international resource for reliable information about the African American and African world at a time when such information was not widely available.

Drum and Spear quickly developed into a combination bookstore, library, community and education center, arts and crafts outlet, and literary haven, where writers held readings and people of all walks of life and all political persuasions met and exchanged ideas. For a time, Drum and Spear was the largest bookstore of its kind in the United States. It inspired the establishment of black bookstores around the country. It also inspired special surveillance by the FBI, which considered black bookstores to be subversive organizations.

An ancillary business, Drum and Spear Press, at 1802 Belmont Road in Adams Morgan, released its first title in 1969: A History of Pan-African Revolt, by C.L.R. James. The Trinidadian-born historian, author, and political activist had joined the faculty of the University of the District of Columbia in 1968. Other releases included Eloise Greenfield's children’s series, the first of which was Bubbles. Some of the bookstore founders also helped open the Center for Black Education, one block west at 1435-1437 Fairmont Street, as an alternative to Federal City College, DC’s new land grant school. The Center embraced a Pan-Africanist philosophy and required its students to do likewise. Through the 1970s it taught a variety of courses, including welding, food science, civil engineering, and politics.