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

2 thoughts on “Civil Rights in the Archives – Collections

  1. Hi Linda –

    I read your this two part series. Thank you for excellent thoughts and the stories you reference. Props to those researchers who suffered such indignities to do their work!

    It’s good that historians are starting to value social history and seeing the relevance of the stories of so many diverse Americans. I’m not an historian, but I find history quite interesting and that both relearning “mainstream” history and learning “rediscovered” stories are enriching.

    I’m a retired math prof (of mixed racial ancestry), and you might find what female, especially African-America female mathematicians have gone through in the past interesting. Prof. Kenschaft wrote an article which I read years ago and found quite inspiring —– Patricia C. Kenschaft, Black Women in Mathematics in the United States , American Mathematical Monthly, October, 1981, 592-604. She has also written a book called Change is Possible about the experiences of diverse mathematicians. And I’m sure you’ve noted that we math women have been celebrating our first female Fields medalist.

    Hope I haven’t taken up too much time. And I’m glad you’re reminding us that history is the story of ALL of us!

  2. Mollie – Thank you for your comments. Thank you also for your information regarding women in math, and women of color in math. That is information I was unaware of.
    I still have several related posts still to come, though I can’t say when the next installment will be posted. I hope you’ll check back again. Thanks for stopping by!

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