poetry quarterly

10th anniversary


Drum & Spear Bookstore

by Brian Gilmore


According to Judy Richardson, a former member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC, when Drum & Spear Bookstore opened in 1968 right in the heart of Washington DC, the riots from the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. had just ended.

“There was still tear gas in the air,” says Richardson from Massachusetts where she currently works on films, “you felt it in your nose.”

Officially, Drum & Spear Bookstore opened in Washington DC on June 1, 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead less than two months. Robert Kennedy would be killed a week after the store opened. It was turbulent time in America. The arrival of Drum & Spear fit neatly into that transformative period.

The address, according to newspaper sources, was riot central: 2701 14th Street NW, just blocks from where the city exploded only minutes after the post-King assassination melee began. Charlie Cobb, 25 years old, and a former field secretary for SNCC founded the store along with Judy Richardson, Courtland Cox, and Curtis Hayes (later Curtis Muhammed). The space where Drum & Spear came to life was described as a “burnt out shop.”

The Washington Post also referred to the soon to be popular cultural meeting ground as a “ghetto bookstore” that had reached out successfully to an “untapped literary mart.” Cobb’s father, Charlie Cobb, Sr., the Executive Director of the United Church of Christ, provided the initial seed money of $10,000 to get the store established.

From the beginning, Drum & Spear was, in fact, a meeting place for Black artists and progressive political movers and shakers of the time. Many were desperate and determined to continue the movement against racial discrimination in America. The presence of the SNCC members was no accident; SNCC had come to Washington DC to bring change to the city. Writers and artists came as well to network. Of note, Shirley Dubois, widow of the late W.E.B. Dubois, came to the store for a celebrated signing of her husband books in January 1971.

Drum & Spear was a place where Black literature flourished. Charlie Cobb was a poet at the time, so naturally it served an important purpose for the city’s always-burgeoning Black poetry scene.

“Black poetry was central to Drum and Spear,” Judy Richardson says as she also drops the names of a few poets of note who read their work at the store: “Gaston Neal, Charlie Cobb...Sonia Sanchez.”

Tony Gittens, former long time Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and co-founder of the store, remembers the poetry well and cites one person in particular who harnessed the poetry energy in the store and presented it to the public.

“The main poetry person was Gaston Neal,” Gittens says. Gittens eventually became manager of the store when it became the largest Black bookstore in the country.

Gaston Neal was clearly an example again the political presence of the store. He was, however, not a member of SNCC. Neal founded the New School of Afro-American Thought at the same time. Richardson says Neal’s presence was simply part of what we were doing at Drum & Spear.

Neal wrote poetry, organized readings at the store, and kept Black poetry alive and well in the city at a time of immense strife and confusion. Some of that cultural and political expression was always found at Drum & Spear.

In 1969, the bookstore assisted in organizing a conference called “Towards a Black University.” The conference eventually led to the formation of many Black Studies programs across the country. The bookstore also founded a publishing arm, Drum & Spear Press, which sought to publish African-centered theme books for children.

Conceptually, according to those that remember, the store was simple: it provided books that one would not otherwise find in other stores, specifically books written by black authors. Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X was frequently a best seller in the store.

Local writer, Marita Golden, remembers the store well, calling it “a real important cultural beacon during the 60's and 70's." It was a “crucial as a part of the Black arts and Black consciousness movement,” she adds by e-mail.

One of the other interesting developments brought forth by Drum & Spear Bookstore is it became the catalyst for other Black bookstores in the area many years later, namely Karibu Books.

Simba Sana, co-founder of Karibu with Yao Glover, in 1992, recalled Drum & Spear’s history in an unpublished thesis he completed on African-centered bookstores in 1998. According to Sana, Drum & Spear sold many books to local schools and libraries and even received some financial assistance from the Johnson administration during the early years. Sana adds: "
It became an important information center and gathering place for a wide range of people from students to drug dealers to political activists. Many author readings and lectures were held in the store, featuring such notables as Haki Madbubuti, Shirley Graham DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lerone Bennett."

By the early 70’s, the once-popular meeting place for Black poets and activists had closed its doors. It was a brief though important run.

According to Sana, and others, money was always an issue but the presence of the many players from SNCC didn’t help matters either. It seems, at least according to Sana’s research, that “repeated harassment by government forces” contributed to the demise of the establishment. Considering the politics of Drum & Spear and what it wanted to do, it is not surprising.



“Book Dedication, Shirley DuBois,” Jet Magazine, January 21, 1971, p.57

“Ghetto Bookshop Finds Untapped Market,” Adrienne Manns, The Washington Post, August 27, 1968, B-1

African-centered Bookstores as Weapons of Culture: Applying the Thought of Amilcar Cabral to the Development of Black Cultural Institutions in the U.S., Simba Sana (unpublished manuscript – Howard University) May 1998

Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC's Dream, Wesley C. Hogan, (UNC Press 2007) p. 231

CLR James: A Critical Introduction, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, (University Press of Mississippi 1997) p. 80

Telephone Interviews with Tony Gittens and Judy Richardson (2007), email interview with Marita Golden (2010).



Brian Gilmore is the author of two books of poems, elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem, (Third World Press 1993) and Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: Poem for Duke Ellington (Karibu Books 2001). He received an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council in 2001 and 2003; was a Cave Canem Fellow in 1997; and a Pushcart prize nominee in 2007. A public interest lawyer, he teaches in the Clinical Law Center at the Howard University, is a columnist for The Progressive Media Project, and a contributing writer for Ebony-Jet online. He lives in Takoma Park, MD with his family.


Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.

Read more by this author:
Brian Gilmore
Gilmore's Introduction to Vol, 2, No. 4 (Fall 2001)
Gilmore on Waring Cuney: Memorial Issue
Brian Gilmore: DC Places Issue
Brian Gilmore: Evolving City Issue
Brian Gilmore: Split This Rock Issue
Brian Gilmore: Audio Issue
Brian Gilmore: It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue
Brian Gilmore: Tenth Anniversary Issue

Brian Gilmore: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
Brian Gilmore on May Miller: Poetic Ancestors Issue