Civil Rights in the Archives – Acquisitions

As the final post in the series about Civil Rights in the Archives, I wanted to end on a positive note. Most of my previous posts showed how archives and archivists have failed in the past to be welcoming and inclusive in their policies and practices towards African-Americans, and how this historical failure has had an impact on the curation and production of history.

In contrast, this post will herald some heroes, a small number of people who, over the course of less than five years, built one of the most significant research collections about the Civil Rights Movement in the South. This collection is nationally respected, but until recently, the men and women who literally put their lives on the line to gather these materials were virtually unknown.

Their story is detailed in an excellent article by Michael Edmonds in the Summer 2014 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History entitled, “‘Bold (Not to Say Crazy)’: Collecting Civil Rights Manuscripts.”

University of Wisconsin history graduate students Mimi Feingold and Bob and Vicki Gabriner first approached the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society about gathering documentation from the Civil Rights Movement. All three had been activists prior to their arrival in Wisconsin. Mimi participated in the Freedom Rides, and the Gabriners had worked for a time with a black community in West Tennessee. Another grad student, Danny Beagle, also worked in West Tennessee, and undergraduates Chris Hexter, Alice Kaplow had been in Mississippi. These three would become the processing archivists and corresponding secretaries of the effort. The Gabriners and Feingold would serve as the field workers, traveling South.

Initial efforts began in early 1965, and by the end of the year, WHS had received commitments from Anne and Carl Braden and collections from more than 20 individuals or groups. By the middle of 1966, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had also agreed to send their papers. The collection was growing, and efforts were becoming more promising as the Braden and CORE materials demonstrated the sincerity and trustworthiness of WHS as an institution and their young fieldworkers.

In the summers of 1966 and 1967, the students took their efforts on the road, traveling to Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. Gwen Gillon and Leah Johnson, both African Americans, joined the teams in 1967. Gillon, an undergraduate, was already a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, having worked full-time for SNCC at age 17.  She had also teamed up with Stokely Carmichael in 1964  in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three voting rights workers (Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman), who were later found murdered.   Johnson had just graduated from UW with a degree in history.

Among the notable collections these teams acquired were the papers of Daisy Bates; scraps from Fannie Lou Hamer (who was literally burning her papers as Johnson and Gillon drove up); the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; personal papers of SNCC members and leaders; items relating to the Albany Movement in Georgia and Freedom Summer in Mississippi; and much more, including papers from small communities and organizations in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana back country.

Although impressive, their work was not easy. And WHS director Leslie H. Fishel Jr. knew the risks these young men and women were taking. He wrote to the State Attorney General to ask if the Society would  be held liable if they were hurt or killed; the reply came back that the student workers would be covered by the Workmen’s Compensation Act. There were other matters, too. Fishel set aside $1500 for bail in case the workers were arrested.

By 1968, many of the students were finishing their studies, and Society director Fishel retired in 1969. The small group that dedicated themselves to documenting the Movement quietly disbanded through attrition.

But their legacy remains. In just three years, more than 200 shipments of materials had been received at Society headquarters in Madison; fifteen years later, leads initiated in the 1960s still were generating donations.

This story demonstrates in a powerful way how archives and archivists can shape the narratives of the stories we tell. In this case, these young people were willing to risk their lives. Much like the Monuments Men of World War II, they were operating “behind enemy lines” to ensure that the raw materials of history survived. Although their work took place over a very short span of time, their activities continue to have far-reaching consequences today, as researchers from around the world come to the Wisconsin Historical Society to research the Civil Rights Movement.

Part 4 (Conclusion) in a series.

Part 1 – Access

Part 2 – Collections

Part 3 – Description

Civil Rights in the Archives – Description

First, a definition. The word “Description,” when used by an archivist in a professional setting, refers to “information about a collection.” This can include things such as finding aids, inventories, scope and content statements, catalog records, subject-oriented “pathfinders” and other research aids. Think of Description as being a tool that you consult before actually diving in to do the research. It can help you decide if a collection has materials of interest, guide you to a specific box to request during your visit, and help you determine if a collection has enough content to be worth travel expenses to conduct research at a far-away repository.

The act of archival description wields enormous power. Fail to mention that an 1849 account book contains details about the buying and selling of human beings; or that an entire box of materials in Mr. VIP’s collection actually documents the social and charitable activities of Mrs. VIP over the course of 40 years – and it might as well be as if these things do not exist. Indeed, from the perspective of a researcher – they do not exist, because the contents of the collections have not be adequately communicated to the end user.

If either of these collections were processed today, I am confident that they would be adequately described to bring out the content relating to African American and women’s history. Those subjects are topics that are generally understood within the archival and history professions to be worth mentioning and highlighting.  However, that has not always been the case.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, most of history through the mid-twentieth century was focused on the stories of “Great Men.” Thus, a collection that was processed and described by an earlier generation of archivists, might not provide adequate description for modern researchers.  Seth Rockman’s comment about African American resources being hidden away in a box or folder labelled “Miscellaneous” is an example. The easy and obvious question is: why can’t archivists provide more (and adequate) description for the contents of their collections?

If only the answer were that simple. Two main factors work against this:

1) As a general rule, archivists seldom have time to reprocess or re-describe collections that already have some form of finding aid or descriptive summary. If a collection was processed in 1920, in any form – then archivists are going to be concentrating their time and efforts on collections that still have received no processing or description at all.

2) Collections from the latter part of the twentieth century are more voluminous than ever.  In an attempt to make better use of archivists’ scarce time, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner proposed a method of processing known in archives lingo as “MPLP” – (More Product Less Process). What this means is that archivists are encouraged to do “speed processing”. One way to do this is to process at a more global, less granular level – at the box-level, for instance, rather than the folder-level. We might, for example, determine that this box contains financial records, another box contains correspondence, and yet another box has marketing materials and advertisements, all part of the Local Widget Company records. That might be as detailed as the description gets. After that, it’s up to the researcher to dig around and determine if the collection has any content of interest. So the MPLP method does present some risk in terms of overlooking certain subject matter – like labor unrest, or LWC’s refusal to hire women on the factory floor, or the Widgets for America campaign during World War II, for instance.

So how can researchers work around these limitations of archival description? First, I encourage you to think broadly.  Even if the formal description from the archives for the Local Widget Company records doesn’t mention its WWII campaign, if you know there is content from that time period in the collection – then it is worth investigating. Consider related topics – narrow and broaden your search terms and your way of thinking of your primary research focus. For instance, if you are researching women factory workers, perhaps try terms like “industry” or “manufacturing” or “widgets” or “women in the workforce”. If that still doesn’t help, always always ALWAYS – ask an archivist!!! Most experienced archivists have more content in their heads than any finding aid could ever capture.

What are archivists doing to try to bring out “hidden topics” from their collections? Some institutions routinely highlight certain items from their collections. Carnival floats and costumes from LARC (LouisianA Research Collections) at Tulane is one great example. Other institutions are creating “virtual exhibits” like Territorial Kansas Online, in this case, featuring content from several repositories. Other organizations are using social media, blogs, or outlets like Historypin  to highlight different aspects of their collections. These methods all allow archivists to zero in on specific items from their collections, or particular themes, and bring them to a wider audience.

 Part 3 in a series.

Part 1 – Access

Part 2 – Collections

Part 4 – Acquisitions

Civil Rights in the Archives – Collections

Why is it sometimes so frustrating and difficult to find African-American voices in major archival repositories, even to this day? What strategies can historians and other researchers use to identify and retrieve silenced voices?

I was following the Society of Civil War Historians‘ conference on Twitter in mid-June. I couldn’t be there in person, but when I saw this post from Megan Kate Nelson, summarizing a point from Seth Rockman, I had to chime in.

Three parts of this tweet prompted me to respond: “records of black people….” and the hidden character of these records in the archives; the all-encompassing but informationally void “miscellaneous” category; and what does and does not get digitized (prompted by a followup tweet from Peter Carmichael). I’ll confine most of my comments in this post to the first part, and save the other two subjects for future posts.

It is all too true that resources about African-Americans – especially African-Americans prior to the 1950s and 1960s, may be hard to come by in many research institutions. Although I’ve done no systematic study, I believe there are several factors which led to this situation.

The first, and most obvious, of course, is racism, pure and simple.  In the first half of the twentieth century, racism permeated America, North and South. The Dunning school held sway in the interpretation of black life under slavery, stereotyped by a paternalistic concern and charity on the part of slaveholders, and loyalty and willing subservience on the part of slaves. Given these kinds of stereotypes, promoted by men who were considered “leading scholars” at the time, it is understandable why historians and archivists of the day might have given more consideration to private papers of the slaveholders, rather than the enslaved. Furthermore, high rates of illiteracy among former slaves meant that many of the raw materials of Southern African-American history existed as oral narratives, not written materials that could potentially find their way into an archive.

The racism that permeated every thread of Southern life also reinforced distrust among blacks and whites.  Why would a black family give their papers to a white university archives, where their story would not be given value, and would likely be marginalized, no matter how successful or prominent the family was? If they were to safeguard their papers for posterity, it only makes sense that a black institution, such as an HBCU in its early years, would be entrusted with the care and preservation of their papers.

The difficulties encountered by black scholars in accessing Southern white archives points out another issue wrought by segregation. If the prevailing law of the land was “separate but equal” and each race had their own schools – what expectation was there that the color line would be crossed to perform research? Poole’s article makes it clear that it was extremely rare for a black scholar to ask to use resources at a white institution. Why, then, would archivists at such an institution care to collect, describe, or make accessible papers of African Americans, when it was assumed there would be virtually no use of such materials?

Finally, and I think this is a point worth highlighting – African-Americans were not the only voices being silenced. Women, other racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, labor groups, homosexuals, and any number of other groups could just as easily end up in the “miscellaneous” (thus, silenced) bin.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, history was considered to be the study of “Great (White) Men”. Presidents of corporations, city leaders, politicians and others in positions of power and influence were thought to be the most important subjects of study – and therefore, the most significant collections to obtain for archives.

The explosion of social history in the 1960s changed all that. While it is true that People in Positions of Power are still overrepresented in archival collections, social history posited that the less-well-documented, such as African Americans; women; labor organizers; and others, had historical value as well. Social history represented a sea-change not only in the production and profession of history – but in the archival profession and repositories as well. Records of a local black women’s social and charitable organization in the 1910s and 1920s might have been ignored had they been offered to a (predominantly white) institution in the early part of the century. By the 1980s, these items would be valued and preserved by that same institution, not only in the interest of providing material for social historians, but also to appeal to and support a more diverse student body.

Part 2 in a series.

Part 1 – Access

Part 3 – Description

Part 4 – Acquisitions

Civil Rights in the Archives – Access

In the current issue of American Archivist (v. 77 no. 1), Alex H. Poole‘s fine article, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow Archives: Race, Space, and History in the Mid-Twentieth-Century American South,” details the incredible, nearly unbelievable difficulties black scholars had in gaining access to the raw materials of history. Winner of the Theodore Calvin Pease Award for the finest work by an archival studies student, Poole is working towards his Ph.D. at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Poole’s extraordinary article chronicles the hardships encountered by noted African-American scholars such as John Hope Franklin, Lawrence Dunbar Reddick, and Helen G. Edmonds, among others. All of these individuals were well-established, respected scholars with Ph.D.’s, with university positions. Yet, when they tried to enter places like UNC, the Woman’s College, and other all-white institutions with major research collections, their presence could “generate a panic and an emergency among the administrators that was….an incident of historic proportions,” in the words of John Hope Franklin (as quoted by Poole).

The first dilemma the white staff faced was whether to admit Negro scholars at all. From the 1930s through the 1950s, most white institutions did not have formal policies in place. In the age of “separate but equal” most facilities assumed that black scholars would perform research at black institutions. At times, administrators at white institutions might reluctantly grant access, if it could be proven to their satisfaction that their repository was the only facility that housed the needed materials.

Even then, granting an African American scholar access was merely the first of a series of hurdles. A letter of introduction might be required, presumably written by a white scholar who could vouch for the African American’s credentials.

Where the black researcher would sit to do his or her work presented an enormous crisis. One library director wrote that white researchers would raise an “objection” if a black researcher was seated in the same reading room. In a number of cases, black scholars were given keys to the stacks, where they could work in a study carrel, alone and out of sight.

Yet another problem encountered by black scholars doing research at white institutions in the Jim Crow South was the indelicate matter of access to restroom facilities. Segregated restrooms apparently had stalls with steel doors; under no conditions would an exception be made to allow blacks to use white-only facilities; and the facilities were white-only because no provision had been made to provide “colored only” restrooms on an all-white campus. On at least one occasion, a black professor suffered the indignity of having to use a janitor’s closet, and Helen G. Edmonds was forced to make a long walk to Morehead Planetarium when she was doing research in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC.

Poole’s article contains many more details, and touches on issues of the facade of Southern “manners” for both races during Jim Crow. He illuminates the power that resides in access to archives – and the ways in which access (or lack thereof) correlates to the production of history. Finally, he concludes with jab at our modern consciousness, encouraging all archivists and administrators to understand how our work intersects with social justice, and urging us all to take this into account in our daily actions, from the reference desk to acquisitions.

Part 1 in a series.

Part 2 – Collections

Part 3 – Description

Part 4 – Acquisitions

Monuments Men rescued archives, too!

Monuments Men

Monuments Man Capt. Isaac Bencowitz of the Offenbach Archival Depot.
From the collections of Yad Vashem.

As an archivist, I’m keenly interested in the Monuments Men and their work to save the cultural heritage of the West, including archives.

Too often, their work with archives, libraries, and non-art museums are minimized or forgotten entirely. It puzzles me that the public and even scholarly fascination with them is so rooted in art, when their work was so much broader than this.  Perhaps art is more accessible. After all, we can all acknowledge the importance of a Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Vermeer. Certainly, when it comes to the movies, art is going to be more glamorous and photogenic than stacks of books or manuscripts. But the rescue of ancient Torah scrolls or Egyptian papyri must be at least equal in their importance.

I hope that one day I’ll have an opportunity to further explore the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives (MFA&A) work to rescue archives, and in particular, the operations at the Offenbach Archival Depot. Back in 1999, I did some initial, somewhat theoretical work on the use and abuse of European records during World War II, which featured some cameo roles by the Monuments Men. But the access to research sources then, compared to what they are now, is vastly different. Plus, my intent with that article was not so much to focus on the Monuments Men, but rather to look at how both sides interacted with records during the war, and what became of the records.

In the meantime, there are some outstanding resources now posted online, which can serve as a starting point for the exploration of the Monuments Men work with archives:

Series of articles profiling individual Monuments Men at the Text Message, a National Archives blog.

More articles about the National Archives and the Monuments Men (both real and in the movie), featured in the Prologue blog “Pieces of History” from the National Archives.

New exhibit at the Archives of American Art, including digital images and oral histories!

Photograph albums of the Offenbach Archival Depot (Album #1) and (Album #2) from the Yad Vashem archives in Israel.

Guide to the Offenbach Archival Depot collection at University of Chicago.

Guide to the Ardelia Hall Collection, Offenbach Archival Depot, records at the National Archives.

Personal Reminiscences of the Offenbach Archival Depot, 1946-1949” by Col. Seymour J. Pomrenze, from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Guide to the Col. Seymour J. Pomrenze Papers at the American Jewish Historical Society

Cultural Looting: The Seizure of Archives and Libraries by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg …” by Martin Dean of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Guide from the National Archives to February 2013 events and other resources related to the release of the movie, “The Monuments Men”.

University of Wisconsin – Madison ‘s connection to the Monuments Men as found at  UW Library News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Flickr and Tumblr

Tourism, History and Memory

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003).

In honor of the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, instead of reading yet another book about the furious fight on the Pennsylvania hills, I chose to read this book by Jim Weeks. It was recommended to me earlier this year by Rob Thompson whom I met at the Future of Civil War Studies Conference this past spring. I had asked Dr. Thompson if he knew of a good book about Gettysburg and tourism, and this was the title he mentioned.

It is an extraordinary example of public history, and one that carries many lessons and examples far beyond Gettysburg and the Civil War:

How do tourists in the present day encounter history? What are their expectations? What do they feel they already know about the site or its story? How do their educational experiences and background affect their outlook? How has the historic site been commercialized? How do the business people involved in such activities view their association with the historic site?  What kinds of objects or services do tourists purchase, and why? How has the interpretation and commemoration of the site changed through time? How did the historic site come to be marked, remembered, and commemorated? Has this changed over time? What is the natural environment at the site – and how does that affect interpretation and the visitor’s experience? How do issues of race, class, and gender intersect with all of these issues? And the ramifications go on and on and on.

Every page is full of keen insights about the history of commemoration and tourism at Gettysburg. But even more enriching than that, nearly all of Weeks’ observations can be extrapolated to virtually any other historic site.  It is a case study, that can serve as a guide.

Highly recommended!