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John Edgar Tidwell collection on Frank Marshall Davis

Call Number: MS 353


Frank Marshall Davis was a well-known African American poet, journalist, and political activist in the 1930s and 1940s who fell into relative obscurity after moving to Hawaii in 1948, until his poetry was "rediscovered" in the 1970s. John Edgar Tidwell has devoted much of his academic career to researching, editing, and publishing materials both by and about Frank Marshall Davis. This collection comprises both Tidwell's collection of original Frank Marshall Davis materials, as well as Tidwell's own research materials relating to Davis and his work.


  • Creation: 1924 - 2015


Conditions Governing Access

No access restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Spencer Library staff may determine use restrictions dependent on the physical condition of manuscript materials.

Biographies of John Edgar Tidwell and Frank Marshall Davis

John Edgar Tidwell is a Professor Emeritus of African American and American Literature at the University of Kansas. He received his bachelor's degree in English from Washburn University in 1969, his master's degree in English from Creighton University in 1971, and his PhD in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981. He has taught courses in English and African American studies at Creighton University, Saint Olaf College, University of Minnesota, Carleton College, University of Kentucky, Miami University, and the University of Kansas. His scholarly publications include books on Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes and his mother, Carrie Hughes, and Frank Marshall Davis. He is the editor and author of the introduction to three books by Davis: Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002), Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992), and Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press (2007).

Frank Marshall Davis was born in Arkansas City, Kansas in 1905 and began working toward a degree in Industrial Journalism at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University [KSU]) in 1925. While at KSU, Davis was a member of the Delta chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. It was in college that he first began writing poetry, and his literature professor, Ada Rice, encouraged him to develop his skills further.

Davis left college in 1927 and moved to Chicago, working for various newspapers including The Gary American. He returned to KSU in 1929 on a Sigma Delta Chi perpetual scholarship but stayed only for a year, noting that the Depression prevented him from finishing his degree. He then moved to Georgia and helped found the Atlanta Daily World, Atlanta's first African American newspaper.

Davis later returned to Chicago and wrote for a number of newspapers, notably the Associated Negro Press, of which he became executive editor. He was a prolific poet during this time, publishing Black Man's Verse (1935), I Am the American Negro (1937), Through Sepia Eyes (1938), and 47th Street (1948) prior to moving to Hawaii with his second wife, Helen Canfield Davis, in 1948. It was around the time of these publications that Davis became the subject of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) case due to the political nature of his poetry and his suspected membership in the Communist Party. The surveillance lasted until 1963.

Once in Hawaii, Davis and his wife had five children, and Davis opened a paper company called Oahu Papers. He continued writing articles for the Associated Negro Press as well as poetry and prose. He published an erotic novel titled Sex Rebel: Black in 1968 under the pseudonym of Bob Greene, and returned to poetry with the publication of Jazz Interlude: Seven Musical Poems in 1977 and Awakening and Other Poems in 1978.

Davis' poetry received renewed attention in the early 1970s as academics sought to establish a canon of African American Literature, and Davis was invited to the United States mainland for a tour of poetry readings in various African American museums and universities. Around this time, Davis began writing his memoirs, to be published posthumously as Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet in 1992. Davis died in Hawaii in 1987 at the age of 81.

John Edgar Tidwell and Frank Marshall Davis began corresponding in the early 1980s, when Tidwell sought to conduct and publish an interview with Davis, ultimately published in Black American Literature Forum 19:3 (1985). They developed a certain friendship through their correspondence, and once aware of the existence of Davis's memoirs, Tidwell began attempting to help Davis publish them. Through Tidwell's research prior to writing the introduction to Livin' the Blues, he developed relationships with Davis' close friends and family, including Helen Canfield Davis, Beth Charlton (Davis' second daughter), and poet Irma Wassall. The memoirs were published in 1992, five years after Davis' death.


9 Linear Feet (9 boxes + 3 oversize boxes, 2 audio cassettes, 1 VHS tape, 1 DVD)

Language of Materials


Scope and Contents

This collection is split into two sub-groupings to reflect the dual nature of the collection's provenance: one part contains Tidwell's research materials relating to Davis, and the other contains original materials by Frank Marshall Davis.

Tidwell's research materials include correspondence with colleagues, friends and family of Davis, as well as Davis himself; general research materials relating to Davis, his poetic style, and jazz; reproductions of original Davis materials, including correspondence, poetry, and FBI reports, many with annotations by Tidwell; research materials relating to Davis's contemporaries, such as Langston Hughes and Irma Wassall; and research and preparatory materials for specific Davis publications, including Black Moods, Livin' the Blues, and Writings of Frank Marshall Davis, as well as shorter talks and articles about Davis.

Original Frank Marshall Davis materials include Davis' personal and professional correspondence and interviews; poetry and prose manuscripts, including unpublished materials; newspaper clippings and fliers relating to Davis's poetry and journalism; and photographs, many of which were taken by Davis himself. A final series includes audiovisual materials relating to the overall collection, including audio interviews, a television special on Davis, and a short film about the Delta chapter of Phi Beta Sigma at Kansas State University.

Oversize materials have been physically separated from the rest of the collection and are stored at MS Q83 and MS Qa28. These materials are described at the end of each series, as appropriate. Audiovisual materials have also been physically separated at SC AV 22 and are described as their own series.

Tidwell's original folder titles have been preserved where possible. In the case of unlabeled folders or files of previously unfoldered items, titles are written in [brackets].

Please note that terms and language used in this collection are representative of when the records were created and have not been replicated in this finding aid, except when directly quoting.

Physical Location

MS 353

Physical Location

SC AV 22

Physical Location

MS Q83

Physical Location

MS Qa28

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gifts, John Edgar Tidwell, 2009, 2017.

Related Materials

Verlean Tidwell family papers, RH MS 1286, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Guide to the John Edgar Tidwell Collection
John Edgar Tidwell collection on Frank Marshall Davis
Finding aid prepared by vej. Finding aid encoded by vej.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.
Finding aid permalink
Preferred citation
John Edgar Tidwell collection on Frank Marshall Davis, MS 353, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Repository Details

Part of the University of Kansas. Kenneth Spencer Research Library Repository

1450 Poplar Lane
Lawrence KS 66045-7616 United States