‘When you support Third World Press, you support Black people’

The Black publishing house founded by Haki Madhubuti is back on track to replace the book inventory destroyed last year due to a devastating flooded basement.

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Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, is shown here in this June 7, 2018 photo at the unveiling of a Gwendolyn Brooks sculpture at Gwendolyn Brooks Park.

Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, is shown with his wife on June 7, 2018, at the unveiling of a Gwendolyn Brooks sculpture at Gwendolyn Brooks Park.

Sun-Times File

Haki Madhubuti received an alarming call in December 2022. He was in Cleveland, and one of his employees from Third World Press called to say a pipe burst and flooded the basement.

Madhubuti, who founded the Chicago independent Black publishing house in 1967, returned home the next day to a devastating scene. Books swam in the basement. Staff filled dumpsters up with them — close to $190,000 worth of book inventory washed away. Tears welled up in his eyes.

“I saw my life go past me,” Madhubuti, 81, a poet and activist, said.

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The headquarters of Third World Press is a beautiful building at 78th and Dobson, a former school and church once owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago. The regal wood space brims with Black books and Black art. Over the decades, TWP has published Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, John Henrik Clarke, Chancellor Williams and Jacob Carruthers.

The publishing house is under Third World Press Foundation, initiated as a nonprofit in 2002. To replenish the lost book inventory, the board suggested setting up a GoFundMe crowdsourcing fundraiser for $190,000. Madhubuti was doubtful.

He had never heard of the fundraising platform and told his board: “I don’t think people are gonna respond to that kind of money needed. Let’s just cut it to $95,000.”

In January, right before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the site went live. Donations from all over the country flooded TWP. Within weeks, $50,000 was raised, in small and large amounts.

One memorable donation came from a trio of Black men who approached Madhubuti outside the publishing headquarters.

“We don’t have a credit card, and we don’t have a checking account. But we got $40,” Madhubuti said they told him. They gave him the money and started to walk off. “I said thanks, brothers, what’s your names? They said you don’t need to know our names. But you need to know this. We got you. This is a sacred zone to us.”

One of the foundation’s initiatives is a prison literacy program. The men had received books while incarcerated. The donation was their way of saying thank you.

TWP is a national treasure right here on the South Side of Chicago, with a global reach of intellect and liberation. Madhubuti and his wife, esteemed educator Carol Lee, have built African American schools and institutions for this city. If burst pipes washed all of that literary genius away permanently, the effects would have been devastating.

TWP used to run a bookstore on the corner of 75th and Cottage Grove. When I was in high school, I perused and bought books at the storefront. I dreamed of working a part-time job there. The titles reflected Black literature, Black struggle and Black joy. My bookworm soul was nurtured.

Earlier this month I visited Baba Haki, as he’s known in the community. A crew of workers weathered the rain to work on the building. He told me the fundraiser was a smashing success. Enough money was raised so that by July, he said 100% of the books lost will be back in print.

“The flood allowed us to see that there are a lot of people that actually love Black people. Because when you support Third World Press, you support Black people,” Madhubuti said. Then he gave me the catalog for books to be released next year.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on race, class and communities for WBEZ and writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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