Recovering yesterday – collection and preservation of African American history - Higher Education
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Recovering yesterday – collection and preservation of African American history

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by Faith Davis Ruffins and Paul Ruffins


Today, celebrations of “Black History Month” stretch from Kwanzaa, through Martin Luther King’s birthday, through February, and sometimes through Malcolm X’s birthday in March. It is easy to forget that just thirty years ago some people wondered if there was enough Black history to even fill up a week. In 1968 a CBS television special, Black History Lost, Missing or Stolen?, captured the then-current feeling that no one knew, or had preserved, the true story of African American contributions to this society.

In the nearly thirty years since then, a generation of scholars and activists have created an explosion in the growth and celebration of Black art, history and culture that ends the myth that the story of African Americans was unrecoverable.

Those scholars and cultural activists were able to draw from a wealth of materials that had been collected and preserved since the early nineteenth century but which were long neglected by mainstream historians. Those objects, documents, photographs, oral histories, and folk songs that are the raw materials of history-making were collected by a variety of people who had different and sometimes conflicting ideas about which parts of the African American experience were important enough to keep

Preserving African American History, 1820-1900

The earliest known attempts to preserve African American history were autobiographies of Africans in America — once known as “slave narratives” — whose authors sought to record their own stories for posterity. Some were published in Spanish and Dutch as early as the 1500s.

Because they were relatively powerless African Americans had few opportunities to preserve their history until the 1820s, when communities of free Black people grew large enough to give birth to Black newspapers and other institutions. The first literary and historical society was founded in Philadelphia in 1828.

During the 1830s slave narratives became more widespread in the United States when abolitionist organizations published dozens each year, constituting some of the earliest white efforts to preserve and disseminate African American history. The detailed personal memories of slavery, exemplified by the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, put forth a philosophy of heroic personal striving in the face of massive violence and repression.

Many African Americans were deeply committed to preserving Douglass’s memory because his life fit into America’s larger narrative of freedom. But Douglass also embodied more prosaic notions of achievement, self-reliance and racial pride — the elements of heroism in everyday life. Many Black people who founded businesses, bought property, or led congregations were seen not only as model citizens but living proof that Black people could disprove stereotypes and enact the rites and rituals of Victorian propriety — education, family stability and military service. Reflecting this was William Cooper Nell’s 1854 book, Colored Patriots of the American Revolution — a direct attempt to place Nell’s New England forefathers alongside Washington and Jefferson as founders of the nation.

In 1867, Hampton Institute started the first African American Museum. The Institute’s founder, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the child of American missionaries, procured many objects from the Pacific islands and other faraway places in order to instruct students about the wide diversity of the world. Later, Dr. William H. Sheppard, a Hampton graduate who had become a missionary among the Kuba people in what was then the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), began to give and sell African objects and art works to Hampton, creating one of the earliest and finest African collections in the United States.

During the 1800s, many African Americans developed a sense that they had a special role in society because they embodied not only the suffering of the chosen people, the ancient Hebrews enslaved in Egypt but also the suffering of Christ. Thus there was a feeling among African Americans that they had a special destiny as truth-tellers and that they would ultimately find freedom — in part because their suffering proved that they were uniquely suited to embody this role.

In 1896, Frederick Douglass’s Washington, D.C., home, Cedar Hill, became the first Black historic house. It was organized and run by his widow and African American community leaders. The establishment of his home as a museum fit with the general notion that it was important to document the artifacts of great men, the histories of Black churches and other items that documented achievements against the odds.

Unfortunately, few people preserved quilts, gourd banjos, fiddles, ceramics, baskets and the other material culture of rural and enslaved Black people that would have given modern historians a more detailed understanding of their daily lives.

Black Materials in White Institutions

White collectors stole and preserved millions of Native American objects from this time. They did not, however, do the same with Black objects and artifacts, which they considered unremarkable. The whites most actively collecting African American materials at this time were physical anthropologists and scientific racists. The Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago collected African and African American skeletons which social-Darwinists used to support their claims that Black people were a less evolved race.

In 1857 Solomon Brown, an African American, was hired as a clerk to the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. He worked at the institution for more than fifty years and became a leading preservationist in Washington’s Black community. Although he was active in African American historical and literary societies, he was never promoted to a professional position and therefore could never start a significant collection at the Smithsonian.

In 1871, a young Black man named Daniel Alexander Payne Murray was hired as a clerk at the Library of Congress. In 1881, he became an assistant librarian and in 1898, he established a collection of African American documents. Until hits death in 1925, he built the library’s collection of books, documents, articles, manuscripts and letters. He put together a vast number of documents for a never-published encyclopedia to document African and African American contributions to world history and culture. The Library of Congress is an example of how the empowerment

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of one dedicated individual led to the creation of one of the most significant collections of Black materials in the world, one that today includes the papers of Booker T. Washington, the NAACP, and the National Urban League.

The Growth of Black Collections and Libraries

The turn of the century saw the establishment of several private libraries such as the American Negro Academy (D.C., 1897) and the Negro Society for Historical Research (New York, 1902).

Two of the most outstanding collectors of this period were Dr. Jesse Edward Moorland and Arthur Alonzo Schomburg.

Moorland, a middle-class Howard graduate and successful real estate speculator amassed a collection of books, manuscripts and letters that documented the literary achievements of Africans and African Americans — particularly in Europe.

In 1914, Moorland donated his collection of more than 3,000 objects to Howard University along with funds to help conserve them. Howard had already received the papers of abolitionist Louis Tappan, who had acquired a number of important slave narratives and autobiographies. In 1947, Howard also acquired the collections of Arthur and Joel E. Spingarn, who were wealthy, progressive New Yorkers who helped found the NAACP. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, the collection, now known as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, was supervised and enlarged under the leadership of Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley to become the most important repository of African American documents and manuscripts.

Starting in 1896, Arthur Alonzo Schomburg, a native of Puerto Rico who migrated to New York, started collecting much the same materials as Moorland. But, perhaps because Schomburg spoke Spanish and came from the Caribbean, he was much more interested in what is now called the African Diaspora than virtually all the other collectors of his day. He acquired the works of many Caribbean writers and had an early interest in the history of Africans in Europe, particularly in Spain prior to the Renaissance. In 1926, his collection was purchased by the Carnegie Corporation for the New York Public Library. Later, Schomburg worked with Fisk University, where he helped to build their collection from 500 to more than 4,500 volumes in less than three years.

The Creation of Negro History Week

In 1915, Carter Godwin Woodson, a Harvard Ph.D., founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — the first, nationwide African American preservation organization.

Woodson’s organization was aimed at a mass audience hut included scholars, self-trained historians, ministers and elementary and secondary school teachers. He believed that white people’s feelings of prejudice and Black people’s feelings of inferiority were largely a result of ignorance. In his seminal book, The Miseducatiorl of the Negro (1933), he argued that these could be changed through a greater understanding of Negro America’s true history.” In addition to starting the first Negro History week in 1926, his organization encouraged the collection and preservation of church records and other documents relating to African Americans. He embraced African American scholars such as Dr. Lorenzo Green, Dr. Rayford Whittingham Logan and Dr. Benjamin Quarles.

Woodson became the twentieth-century inheritor of the nineteenth-century idea that African American r history constituted a special kind of truth-telling, believing that solid historical research would bear this out. He emphasized the contributions of educated and heroic African Americans who became lawyers, doctors and business owners to help counter negative stereotypes. However, he moved beyond earlier thinking in one very important way: he argued for the importance of understanding the true history of Africa to counter the myth that Africans were uncivilized.

Unlike nineteenth-century African Americans’ identification with the enslaved Hebrews or the contemporary focus on ancient Egypt, Woodson helped make people aware of the West and Central African societies that had been the actual home of most of the people enslaved in the New World. His insistence on rooting African American history in African history — rather than starting at the moment of enslavement — has become a cornerstone of scholarly thought.

Government Support and Oral History, 1930-1950

During the Depression, key collections of Black materials were established in federal government repositories by white folklorists with radical or populist sentiments. They saw the oral testimony and musical traditions of rural Americans and also such downtrodden people as hillbillies, prostitutes and criminals as central to understanding authentic American culture.

The Archives of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (1928) and the Federal Writers Project began to collect folklore as a way of remembering and celebrating rural ways of life that were dying out as millions of people moved to the cities to escape the environmental and financial disasters — such as the Dust Bowl — that followed World War I.

Working closely with the Library of Congress, John Lomax and, later, his son, Alan, traveled widely, recording the songs of Mexicans in Texas, the stories of Okies in California, and various Native American materials. But the vast majority of their recordings were of African Americans, often in unconventional settings such as prisons, bars, and work camps. John Lomax is widely recited with discovering Hudson (“Huddie”) William Ledbetter, better coown as Leadbelly, a legendary blues nusician and convicted murderer.

The notion that folklore and folk songs were the central cultural contributions of African Americans was very different from the attitudes of most of the bohemian urban intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the middle-class members of the NAACP and Urban League, many of whom found Leadbelly an embarrassing throwback to rural ignorance. However, some Negro artists — such as Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, and most notably, Paul Robeson and Zora Neale Hurston — were attracted to the authenticity of this material. Robeson, an international star, pacifist and radical, was one of the first to perform Negro spirituals on the concert stages of Europe and America and forged a link between Negro music and the music of other social and political movements around the world. Hurston, a rebel in the Renaissance, lampooned those whom she saw as uninterested in African American vernacular culture, and took Alan Lomax on several collecting tours to Florida and the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.

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Music was not the only cultural form preserved during the 1930s. In 1933, the Works Progress Administration and the National Relief Administration funded programs such as: the Index of American Design, the Folksong and Folklore Department of the National Service Bureau; the Federal Music Project, under Charles Seeger; and the Folklore Studies of the Federal Writers Project, under Benjamin Botkin. These programs played an invaluable role in preserving the testimony of elderly African Americans — including the last living generation of former slaves. Though often uneven, the thirty volumes of material collected by the WPA became a priceless resource to the pioneering historians of slavery such as Botkin (A Folk History of Slavery, 1945), Dr. Eugene Genovese (Roll Jordan Roll, tbe World the Slaves Made, 1974) and Dr. Lawrence Levine (Black Culture, Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, 1977).

New collections of traditional documents were also created during this period. In 1935, the National Archives opened to the public and, in gathering together the records of the American government, also preserved African American-related materials — such as slavery debates in Congress and state legislatures, the papers of the Freedman’s Bureau, and census and military service records which provided huge amounts of statistical data about Black people. Some of the few African Americans who did get professional and paraprofessional jobs in the Archives — including Dr. Roland C. McConnell, SarahJackson, James Dent Walker and Dr. Harold Thomas Pinkett — developed extensive expertise in the records relating to African American history. Some became founding members of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

After World War II, government and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance of African American activists and the civil rights movement also created fascinating and often disturbing records, some of which are now available under the Freedom of Information Act.

Black Objects in White Collections

Dr. Melville Herskovits was the first white American scholar to investigate the survival of elements of African culture in the New World.

Traveling between West Africa, the Caribbean and South America, with the help of his wife, Frances, he emerged as one of the earliest major collectors of African and Diaspora materials — which included manuscripts, books and artworks. After he started teaching in 1927 at Northwestern University, he built one of the most important collections in the United States. Upon his death, his books remained at Northwestern. The artworks and artifacts, however, were transferred to the Schomburg collection which had become part of the New York City Library system.

During the 1930s, only one major private collector, Miriam Bellangee Wilson of Charleston, South Carolina, began collecting slave-made artifacts. Her collection formed the basis of the Old Slave Mart Museum which opened in the early 1960s.

The Black Museum Movement, 1950-1980

Before 1950, there were very few Black museums. Most of these were on Black college and university campuses and focused on library and fine art collections. However, between 1950 and 1980 — which encompasses the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Consciousness eras — more than ninety African American museums were founded in the U.S. and Canada.

Often these new museums were started in urban areas by community activists who had worked in the civil rights movement and now wanted to use their expertise for a cultural agenda. Many Black artists, religious leaders and political leaders struggled with questions of personal and ethnic identity.

Many of the founders of Black museums were motivated by the need to create positive cultural myths and institutions. In the 1950s and 1960s, many of these people were artists or teachers — such as Elma I. Lewis, who founded a dance school in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1950 and began the National Center of Afro-American artists in 1968; and Margaret Taylor Burroughs, who organized the Ebony Museum of Negro Culture (now the Du Sable Museum) in Chicago in 1961.

After 1964, the founders of Black museums tended to be younger people whose political rhetoric and goals were informed by the civil right movement. They included: Charles Wright, who established the Museum of Afro-American History in Detroit (1965); Edmund Barry Gaither, hired by Elma Lewis to direct her museum in 1968; Byron D. Rushing, the first director of the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston (1969); and Rev. John Kinard, the first director of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. (1967). All felt that museums could be instruments of empowerment for the local Black community.

Unlike most museums, which were originally founded to house an existing collection, most of the newer African Americans museums started with a mandate from the community for positive education, a group of political activists, and a desire to communicate. Thus there has often been a greater focus on performances, art exhibitions, tours and classes for students than on valuable art or material culture collections.

During the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the preparation for the 1976 bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence boosted spending on historical projects to an unprecedented level. Simultaneously, the growth of the number of Black elected officials at the local, state and federal level brought Black communities greater government resources than ever before. During the 1970s, Black museums or heritage societies were funded in Providence, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The rapid growth of these museums led to the formation of the African-American Museums Association in 1978.

Overall, the creation of Black museums was one of the most important and successful institution-building outcomes of the Black Consciousness Era.

White Institutions in the Black Consciousness Era

Until recently, most major Americans museums — even the newer “living history” museums — continued to exclude or ignore African American materials, with the exception of a few artists.

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Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. for example, made no mention of the fact that a third of all nineteenth-century seamen were African American. The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg which was intended to he historically accurate, ignored the fact that 50 percent of Williamsburg’s inhabitants had been African American.

This began to change when museums realized that minorities constituted a significant portion of their audience and that many of these new audiences came to museums to partake of exhibitions or programming that related to their history and culture. In the late 1970s, Colonial Williamsburg began to incorporate African Americans into its interpretative framework, particularly at the Carter’s Grove plantation.

Before 1965, the Smithsonian virtually ignored African American materials and concerns. Over time, Black cultural activists and Black members of Congress, who approved its budget, began to criticize this lack of diversity.

A turning point for the Smithsonian was reached when Ralph Rinzler, a cultural populist, established the annual Festival of American Folklife whose American components immediately featured African American and Native American experiences, providing a stage for Black music — including jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, spirituals, and freedom songs. The festival also presented music and dance from the African Diaspora — including Reggae and Calypso. The activists, scholars and artists whom Rinzler hired to coordinate these programs created the first critical mass of minority professionals at the Smithsonian — including Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who produced the Smithsonian’s brilliantly successful three-month long African Diaspora Festival in 1976. For perhaps the first time in American history, a Black American mythos — the notion of the unity of African people across time and space — was presented by a major cultural institution. In 1977, Reagon established the Program in Black American Culture as an independent entity within the Division of Performing Arts.

In 1967, because of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley’s interest in community museums, the Smithsonian established the Anacostia Neighhorhood Museum in a largely Black neighborhood far away from the National Mall. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum may well have been the first federally funded African American Museum established through a government agency. At its helm was Rev. John Kinard, a young minister and community activist who was selected by a community advisory hoard. Over the years, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum has produced a series of creative and controversial exhibits and programs, communicating new perspectives about the African Diaspora, slavery, and contemporary Black issues.

Over time, other Smithsonian museums developed programs featuring African American themes or content. In 1972, the National Portrait Gallery sponsored two exhibits curated by Dr. Letitia Woods-Brown, which represented the Smithsonian’s first exploration of the rich, local Black traditions of the nation’s capital. In 1973, the gallery sponsored The Black Presence in tbe Revolutionary Era, curated by Stanley Kaplan.

During the mid 1970s, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) made unprecedented efforts to include African Americans in two major history exhibits — We the People (1975)and A Nation of Nations (1976). These exhibits, which emphasized the larger American myth of the melting pot, were criticized for downplaying the violent and conflicting aspects of American race relations. However, they stimulated the Smithsonian’s first systematic efforts to collect African American materials. An extensive photo archive on baseball’s Negro League was one of its earliest results.

When Roger Kennedy became director of NMAH in 1979, he helped set the stage for After the Revolution: Everyday Life in America, 1780-1800 and Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1910-1940 — the first exhibits that included some of the interior-view, living-conditions profiles of African Americans and their history. In 1987, Congress purchased the Duke Ellington Collection for NMAH. Then, the National Museum of African Art was moved from small offices on Capitol Hill to a beautifully designed underground complex on the National Mall.

The most symbolically significant preservation effort of the 1980s was the federal government’s adoption of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983. The inception of that holiday followed a fifteen-year campaign by Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, singer Stevie Wonder, Congressman John Conyers Jr., and many other activists.

One reason why the majority of Americans was willing to create a King holiday was because King had aligned the civil rights movement with the larger American narrative of justice and democratic rights. He embodied Black America’s centuries-old belief — shared by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Carter G. Woodson — that African Americans had a special destiny, and that truth-telling and true history could change the world.

RELATED ARTICLE: Martin H. FREEMAN

One of the stories that has been mined from the documents and books that have been collected by historical and literary societies is that of Martin Henry Freeman.

In 1826, Freeman was born to a free Black family in Rutland, Vermont. His pastor, Rev. William Mitchell, recognized his talent and as a result of Mitchell’s tutoring, Freeman was accepted into Middlebury College, becoming class salutatorian. In April 1850 he was invited to join the faculty of the newly established (March, 1849) Allegheny Institute and Mission Church (later Avery College) in Pittsburgh. In recognition of his appointment and advanced study in mathematics and science, Middlebury voted him an M.A. degree in 1852.

Freeman served as a professor and administrator at Avery for many years. However, the continual racism he encountered in Pittsburgh drew him to the philosophy of Dr. Martin Delany, the famous advocate of Black repatriation to Africa. In 1863, Freeman resigned from Avery and moved to Liberia to become a professor at the newly formed Liberia College at Monrovia. He taught there for more than twentyfive years and was appointed its president shortly before his death in March of 1889.

Dr. Russell Irvine, a professor at Georgia State University, published Freeman’s story “Martin H. Freeman America’s First Black College Professor,” in The Rutland Historical Society Quarterly. (Volume 26, Number 3, 1996).

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