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 – 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