Black history: The enduring legacy of America’s oldest Black publishers

The tragedy at Third World Press has shed light on how precarious the situation is for many Black publishers across the U.S.

When a burst pipe flooded the basement of Third World Press, an independent Black-owned publishing company on the South Side of ChicagoHaki Madhubuti was devastated. 

“Our losses were tremendous,” said Madhubuti, a renowned educator and poet who founded Third World Press in 1967. “We had a dumpster about the size of a small kitchen, and we eventually filled up two dumpsters. That was about 65, 70 percent of our inventory. It hurt badly.”

The water flooded the basement, ruining a significant amount of the store’s backlist, or collection of older books. Computers, bookshelves, and furniture were also damaged. Thousands of books now sit in a dumpster behind the building. The damage amounted to over $200,000, Madhubuti estimated. Destroyed inventory included works from Black literary giants like Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Henrik Clarke, Sonia Sanchez, and more.

fundraiser was created to support the publisher. Third World Press exceeded its goal of $95,000, thanks to more than 500 donations — including a $50,000 contribution from Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving. 

Madhubuti, 81, said he was not familiar with GoFundMe before the flooding but was heartened by the responses. Well-wishers not only responded by donation online, but with notes and letters. He said people even came to the building to personally deliver cash and checks. Third World Press has been in the community for over 50 years, and the community showed up for them when they needed help most. “It’s been a movement to keep us alive.”

The fundraiser will remain active until the end of February. 

Although the publisher was able to meet its goal, the tragedy at Third World Press shed light on how precarious the situation is for many Black publishers across the country. Black legacy publishers, or Black publishers founded by those who lived through the civil rights era, simply don’t have the resources to handle devastating losses.

Books sit in a dumpster at Third World Press. NBC Chicago.
Third World Press is the oldest independent Black publishing company in the country still operating today (Madhubuti says it is the oldest in the world). It is the publishing home of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, poets Sterling Plumpp and Margaret Walker, and many others.
Madhubuti is widely regarded as a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement, alongside its founder Amiri Baraka, and other literary icons like Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, and more. Third World Press is one of the few major legacy Black publishers still in existence, including Baltimore’s Black Classic PressNew Jersey’s Just Us Books, and “sister presses” Africa World Press and The Red Sea Press, two affiliated imprints in New Jersey as well. There’s also Detroit’s Broadside Lotus Press, born of a merger between two legacy publishers.
The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s saw a major increase in the number of Black bookstores and publishers, but many faced tremendous difficulty finding the resources to stay afloat. But they remained committed to publishing Black-centered literature by any means necessary. 

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