The William Grant Still Papers, 1877-1992, contain chiefly photocopies of music, writings, correspondence, diaries, pictures, printed material, clippings, and recordings, which primarily document his work as a composer. The collection relates to the historical and critical study of his music, as well as being a valuable source of arrangements for performances. Still's music gained recognition due to his ability to compose classical music which both reflected distinctive African-American as well as African influences. In addition, materials (primarily writings and librettos), created by Verna Arvey, Still's second wife, also form an integral part of the collection.
A substantial portion of the collection is comprised of music in manuscript and printed formats as well as in recorded formats, and is contained in the Music series and Recordings series. The collection does not contain all the music Still composed, however it does contain a substantial number of his works and can adequately support the research of Still's compositions. The various genres or mediums in which Still worked, including symphonies, operas, spirituals, songs, and chamber music are represented in the collection. Conductors' scores and published arrangements are included. Among the various publishers represented are Charles Pace and W.C. Handy Company and the J. Fischer and Brothers. Originals from these companies are present. Countee Cullen, Verna Arvey, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and Katherine Garrison Chapin are represented among those who wrote librettos or texts for Still's arrangements. Recordings for some of Still's works are available in compact disc, LP, and audio cassette formats. Included in the recordings are performances by Louis Kaufman, Peter Christ, Videmus, the William Grant Still Music Performing Arts Society, the Denver Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, and other individual artists and orchestras.
Insofar as documenting Still's professional life, the diaries, writings, and correspondence are less complete than the music. Since gaps are evident within the diaries and correspondence, these materials do not provide a full and detailed understanding of Still's career development. However, some information pertaining to his work as well as his personal life is available. The Writings series contains several articles by Still as well as biographical and critical works about Still and his music. This series also contains writings by Verna Arvey and Judith Anne Still. An autographed copy of Arvey's In One Lifetime is included. The Correspondence series includes letters between Still and Alain Locke as well as Still and Charles Burch. Within these exchanges, there is some discussion and criticism of Still's compositions, reflections on the problems confronting African-American musicians in the 1930s, and a discussion of the possibility of Still teaching at Howard University. Correspondence between Arvey and Carl Van Vechten is also included. The diaries of both Still and Verna Arvey primarily record daily activities. However, Still's diary entries from 1930 contain reflections on his faith and spirituality, his music, and his first marriage to Grace Bundy. Within the Printed Materials and Clippings series are programs and newspaper articles, many of which are originals, that document the performances and the wide acceptance of Still's music.
The Scrapbooks series primarily contain Verna Arvey's collection of clippings which document political and social events between the 1940s and the early 1970s. These clippings demonstrate Verna Arvey's strong interest in the anti-Communist movements of the mid-twentieth century, primarily Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations. The contents of these scrapbooks do not directly relate to William Grant Still's music. To a lesser extent the scrapbooks contain clippings pertaining to race and the status of African-Americans in the United States.