BMRC Processing Project Blog
Ghosts of Urban Renewal: The Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records at Chicago Public Library Special Collections
By Meghan Courtney, Graduate Student Processor
For many, urban renewal in Chicago did exactly what it was designed to do. Prosperous areas populated by white residents were successfully insulated against increasing white flight to the suburbs. Areas of the “black belt,” plagued with overcrowding and outdated sanitation, were torn down to build housing with functional indoor toilets and access to sunlight.
Opponents of urban renewal argue that such large-scale land clearance and development projects served to remove less powerful Chicagoans from their homes while creating profit for more powerful residents. But the legacy of urban renewal as “negro removal” reveals a feeling of assault on identity and community stretching far deeper than land ownership rights.
Legitimacy lies at the heart of the issue. Urban renewal addressed some very real problems: urban planners knew it was unreasonable for poor Black Chicagoans to be crowded into subdivided apartments in the black belt without functional indoor plumbing. But leaders disagreed about the value of communities lost through land clearance.
In the end, urban renewal relied on a top-down approach that gave poor, mostly Black residents no voice in redevelopment plans meant to benefit them. Decisions made by federal, state, or city government failed to treat people living in dilapidated or inadequate residences as members of a legitimate community. Poor areas were labeled “blight,” treated as a cancer, and removed from the urban landscape.
This practice erased a number of communities with strong cultures and architectural limitations. The Mecca Flats, located between State and Dearborn on 34th Street, had a significant role in Black culture in Chicago during the first half of the Twentieth Century (see links below). Residents organized to protect their home, but could not succeed. The building was razed for Illinois Institute of Technology expansion in 1951 as land clearance and urban renewal gained legal support on national and local levels. Other neighborhoods were torn down because of their lack of sufficient alleys, excess of alleys, or poor distribution of housing, industry, and commercial buildings. It was easy for an area to fail standards: Chicago had only started a system of zoning in 1923, and many older neighborhoods would not meet new requirements without significant financial investment. Many of these razed neighborhoods were replaced by high-rise public housing projects.
The Chicago Department of Urban Renewal did conduct neighborhood meetings explaining redevelopment plans to area residents after they had already been approved. However, the majority of the collection documents pristine building models and forced smiles in before and after photographs. In most cases, buildings were photographed empty, isolated from each other and stark against cloudy skies. Where people came into the frame, they appear distant, detached, or staged.
The photographs in the DUR collection give insight into the attitudes of the institution as a whole. Documenting neighborhoods in a before and after format gave the organization proof that their goals had been accomplished: slums cleared, blights stopped, public housing built.
For the Chicago Department of Urban Renewal, that’s the end of the story. After the cleared land passed into the hands of private developers, universities, or the Chicago Housing Authority, the DUR’s job was done. There were no more pictures to create. Though the human communities altered by urban renewal were not the intended subjects for photographs, they haunt the collection’s photographs just the same.
More information on the Mecca Flats
Recording of the “Mecca Flat Blues”
Readings from In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks
A short informational film produced by the Department of Urban Renewal during the 1960s
Bey, Lee. “The Storied Mecca Apartments Live Again, Thanks to ‘Life’ Magazine Archives.” Lee Bey Blog, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio website. June 21, 2012.
McDonald, John F. and Daniel P. McMillen. “Land Values, Land Use and the First Chicago Zoning Ordinance.” Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics 16:2 (1998). 135-150.
Rast, Joel. “Regime Building, Institution Building: Urban Renewal Policy in Chicago,
1946–1962.” Journal of Urban Affairs. May, 2009.
Standley, Fred L. and Louis H. Pratt. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
By Mooni Abdus-Salam, Undgraduate Student Processor
A year ago, I did not know the feeling of relief that comes along with completing the processing of a collection. I didn’t know what it meant to survey, to intellectually organize, to redact a restricted item in a collection. I didn’t know that I was capable of feeling intense hatred and love for mechanical pencils and rubber erasers. I didn’t know what it meant to have sticky notes cling to my clothes long after the work day ends. A year ago, I had no idea that I would become this intimately acquainted with Chicago history.
Today marks the end of processing the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago collection, the second collection that I have worked on here at the BMRC. My processing partner, Ben, and I have agreed that there is a hole inside of us that needs to be filled where United Way used to be. Maybe this is a little dramatic, but this collection was no walk in the park. At just over 1700 boxes (about 850 linear feet), United Way has given me insight into the more challenging aspects that come with working in archives. There were problems of space and time, numbers and words, and moments of unbearable quiet that could only be filled with copious amounts of music and World War Z: the audiobook. It was an intense process, and I had not even been here since the beginning of processing.
My first collection, fortunately, was a tamer introduction into the world of processing than United Way would turn out to be. I was assigned to work on the National Organization of Women (NOW) Chicago collection. It was substantial, but not nearly as exhaustive as United Way, and infinitely more interesting. I had the privilege of being able to organize original photos of The Feminine Mystique author and founder of NOW Betty Friedan at various events. I got to process and label documents showcasing the growing feminist movement of the 70’s. I still wish I could have kept a vintage ERA rally t-shirt. However, I could have definitely done without the speculum and “do-it-yourself” cervical exam literature that we found. With every banker’s box we perused, I felt as if I was being granted intimate access into little snippets of Chicago women’s history.
There was also a golden uterus, as shown below:
Don’t really know what that’s about. But, hey, history!
I am an English major, and when I applied to work as a processing intern here at the BMRC in May, all I knew was that I was in love with libraries. I was curious about what happens when a researcher pages a document for work, and especially how an institution decides what materials are qualified enough to be archived in their special collections. I only had the smallest inkling of the amount of time, effort, and patience it takes to make collections and records ready for researchers and possibly the entire public.
Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of things that I have learned since working here at the BMRC:
1. The amount of jobs for people with a higher degree in the Library Sciences is limited, and you have to be willing to relocate pretty much anywhere for a job that pays at least somewhat decently.
2. There are 3 things you need to be able to work in a library’s archives and/or special collections:
- An intense, almost incurably addictive love of Coffee
- An extensive music/audiobook library for those exceptionally quiet days
- An appreciation of the dark, the dusty, and the deserted. Introverts are welcome.
3. (Mechanical) pencils are simultaneously heaven-sent and the creation of the devil.
4. Contrary to what you may believe when applying to any sort of library job, math is a skill you will be using. No, there is no way around it. Yes, it does suck.
5. Being a processing intern (not quite a library assistant, not quite an archivist) will always be a hard thing to explain. Dinner parties as well as introductions to the parents of your friends/significant others should be avoided. Actually, just make that any type of social situation.
In short, working at the BMRC has brought me closer to choosing a potential career path, one that caters to my aversion to large groups of people, and probably just socializing in general. However (and this is a big however), it also fosters and encourages my love of books and cultural history, and has introduced me to a new and exciting community of people.
By Angelique Schuler, Graduate Student Processor
One of the many arguments against the MPLP method for processing is that not enough attention is given to preservation issues. However, in my experience using MPLP at the BMRC we have always looked out for conditional issues that may cause harm to a collection. We do care -- we do want the materials processed and out of backlog – but we will also address pressing conservation and preservation issues that affect our collections. Our hope is that we can address issues quickly and effectively.
At the BRMC we are expected to process each collection in a timely manor. However, we are on the constant look out for damage to documents, fragile photographs, evidence of or live pests, nitrate film, dirt, mold, audio-visual materials, and artifacts. Should any of these issues be spotted a form is filled out immediately to address the issue. In my time as a processor, I have personally encountered acidic/fragile paper and books, mold, dead and live pests. The simple reality is that these and other preservation concerns happen in nearly every repository.
Depending of the repository funds for preservation we assess the need and address them to our best ability. Some of the various ways that preservation concerns are address are by digitization, isolation, encapsulation, and changes to the micro and macro environment that houses the materials. An additional unique way that preservation issues are addressed is through freeze-dry technology.
Digitization of damaged documents should be the first step. Digital copies are not the same as the original but sometimes the educational value is in the content and not presentation of our materials. The price of scanners has steadily gone down through the years. So for around 100 dollars you can purchase a good scanner to preserve damaged documents. Digitization should be done for all documents affected before other preservation takes place because the more time that elapses the more the documents will change.
Isolation is taking the damaged item and placing it away from other items. The lowest cost way to do this in a repository is to have an archival box and folders set aside for contaminated items. Each item should receive its own folder and the archival box. Should mold be the issue the archival box should then be wrapped in a plastic bag to prevent the spread of spores.
Encapsulation uses mylar film and archival tape to enclose the damaged document. To properly encapsulate an item the mylar must be at least two inches larger than the documents parameter. The archival tape should wrap around the document without touching the document and must not attach at the corners. The room at the corners allows the documents to breath and also allows the archivist to easily reopen the encasement should need be. When done properly Mylar encapsulated items appear to be laminated but this form of preservation does not change the integrity of the document at all. Again the items should still be isolated from non-affected materials in an archival box.
The best treatment damaged archival materials is to send them to a freeze-dry facility. However, freeze-drying technology is expensive. Typically repositories are charged per cubic foot to treat their documents. Depending on how much or little you have to treat this form of treatment may not be a feasible option. Several freeze-dry facility function in the United States.
For my Chicago readers, we have a facility located in Skokie, Illinois called Midwest Freeze Dry. I was fortunate enough to tour Midwest Freeze-Dry when dropping off a collection that had a silverfish infestation. I am impressed by how the facility functions. The staff at this facility is enthusiastic about preservation, which is awesome to see! I would highly recommend the use of Midwest Freeze Dry should you have preservation emergency.
The science behind freeze-dry technology is to place archival documents such as: paper, books, photograph, and even textiles, in an airtight vacuum chamber. The items in the chamber are brought to below freezing temperatures. The control of the vacuum allows the preservationist to lower the pressure in the vacuum, which allows the materials to be taken from a frozen to dry state without passing through the liquid phase. The water vapor is removed from the chamber leaving the archival materials fully dried.
Chemicals can be added to the freeze-dry process to enhance the longevity of archival documents. For example, paper produced between 1880-1990 was made with a PH of about 7. So over time the paper quickly becomes acidic and brittle. During the freeze-dry process a vaporized alkaline buffer can be sent through the paper which will move the PH up to about 11. This will not correct the damage done but will immensely help to slow down the aging process. Pests can also be treated via freeze-drying. The freezing phase of the process will kill virtually all live bugs and eggs. I expect that freeze-dry technology will continue to grow and help our field!
My hope with this blog post is to enlighten you about the preservation work that we do at the BMRC. I also hope that this has been informative to other repositories or individuals that have document preservation concerns. Always remember to never do something that changes the integrity of a document. When in doubt about what to do -- folder and box the items and keep them in isolation!
Cheers to processing and preserving!
By Angelique Schuler, Graduate Student Processor
The Shorefront Legacy Center is a repository located in Evanston, Illinois. The focus of this repository is to document black history in the North Chicago area. In 1995, Dino Robinson started this repository by collecting various items from people in the North Shore. In 2012, Dustin Witsman came to Shorefront from the BMRC to process papers. He was able to do remarkable work in a short period of time. He processed 39 collections between May and August.
I arrived at Shorefront about a week ago. I was sent to Shorefront to process the NAAPC North Shore Chapter Collection. However, due to a delay this project was paused for a couple weeks. I am excited to note that Dino Robinson was prepared for this delay. Mr. Robinson had about six smaller collections in backlog. I was I was able to process the majority of these collections and currently am in the editing process to complete the finding aids.
This is the second time I was sent to a small repository in Chicago. I think that it is amazing that the work, dedication, and passion that Dino Robinson (Shorefront Legacy Center) and Sherry Williams (Bronzeville Historical Society) have to preserve the records of their communities for future generations to learn from. These repositories are truly gems within the Chicago community and must not be overlooked.
One thing that stands out to me at these smaller repositories is the holdings of collections and papers ordinary people that did extraordinary things in their lives. For instance, Alice Lucille Tregay lived in Evanston Illinois for the majority of her life. However, she spent her life as an advocate for civil rights, working among many of the nations most recognized leaders. Without these institutions making an effort to actively collect these records could be lost or forgotten.
I encourage those who read this to plan a time to visit and see the collections at these institutions. See for yourself the working being done at these facilities and make an effort to be a part of your community archive or historical society. Think about the records you have, the things that you and your family have done – you may not think it is anything special but someone else might find your story amazing!
Shorefront Legacy Center
2010 Dewey Avenue, Room 205
Evanston, IL 60201
Weekdays – By appointment
Saturdays – 9:00am -2:00pm
Sundays and Major Holidays - Closed
By Angelique Schuler, Graduate Student Processor
The Bronzeville Historical Society (BHS) was started in 1999 by Sherry Williams and is currently located at the Stephan Douglas Tomb on 35th Street and east of Cottage Grove. Sherry Williams is a prominent member of the community and started the organization to preserve the social and cultural memories of the community. Over the years Sherry began collecting items from the community and as her collection grew so did her mission to start the BHS.
I began working at the Bronzeville Historical Society on May 20, 2013. I did not know what to expect upon my arrival. At the time the BHS was in transition from the Pullman Site to the Douglas Tomb and many of the items were quickly moved and put into storage in the back room of the facility. My first thought was that six weeks would not be enough time to organize the collection but within a week the back room was clear and the processing was underway. It was amazing to me to see the change after only six weeks of work.
In my six weeks, I processed 8 collections:
· William Earl Washington Collection,
· Ruby Banks Diplomas,
· Sherry Williams Collection,
· Civil Rights Serial Collection,
· LP Collection,
· VHS Video Collection,
· Unidentified Artifact Collection, and
· Unidentified Photograph Collection
I was able to transform the archival items from their temporary storage containers into sound archival boxes and folders. The facility is using temporary shelves but each collection has a designated space and is appropriately identified. I think that many of my colleagues would agree that we would love to devote more time into every collection but for now I am grateful that progress was made and my hope is that the facility continues to grow and expand.
*** Note *** The Bronzeville Historical Society is open to the public Wednesdays – Sundays from 9:00am till 5:00pm. Collections may be viewed with the permission and supervision of Sherry Williams. Please visit!!
By Elise Zerega, (recently graduated) Undergraduate Student Processor
There were many changes in my transfer from DuSable Museum of African American History to the Chicago History Museum one year ago, the most significant being the size of collections. At DuSable, I processed twelve archival collections varying from one box to sixty. Then I went to the Chicago History Museum’s offsite storage in Broadview and jumped in on a collection that ended up being 888 boxes. Surely the one following that beast wouldn’t be such a momentous task, I deluded myself into thinking. I was kind of right, it was only 268 boxes. It was a new learning curve to process large collections as opposed to small, intimate ones like the ones found at DuSable. So what follows is a brief annotated list of how to make it through processing a larger collection with your sanity still intact.
1. Piles. Whereas small collections require looking and re-looking at every piece of material to get the most out it, large collections are all about figuring out how to organize. Piles suddenly become your best friend: ones that make perfect sense to you but to the passerby look like chaos. Then you realize to you they look like chaos. Then you realize it is in fact, chaos. So you reorganize and re-pile boxes and folders and papers until that miscellaneous pile becomes larger than the rest of the piles slowly encircling you and you try and organize that pile into all your other piles. There is just a lot of piling going on. And a lot of convincing yourself that what you are doing makes total sense.
2. Background noise. This piling, I mean organized and orderly process, as you may be able to see, can be slightly maddening. To dull the voice in your own head, I suggest listening to the voices of others. It has to be engaging enough to make you forget you are only organizing box fourteen out of seventy two, but not so engaging you have completely stopped processing and realize you are only on box fourteen out of seventy two. Podcasts and classical music have this balance down. So when you start your own collection of a hundred plus boxes, tune in to some Pop Culture Happy Hour or Peter and the Wolf and imagine you are one of the PCHH gang or Sasha the Duck, because really, who doesn’t want to be Sasha the Duck? You get to have oboes as your musical character.
3. Sweatshirts, scarves, blankets, parkas. My internal heating regulation system, or my thermoregulation (yes, I have taken science classes!), yells at me every day before I leave for work, no matter the time of year, to wear a sweater and bring a scarf. Because archives are chilly. If you would call the South Pole chilly. To prevent your body from shutting down due to hypothermia, always come prepared. It doesn’t matter if you end up on People of the CTA as the girl wearing a parka in 80 degree heat. In the archives, you’ll be the smart cookie wearing enough clothing to shield her from the sub-zero temperatures.
4. Erasures. The larger the collection, the more mistakes you’ll make. A series that starts off as Family Papers will inevitably become Personal Papers only to be changed back to Family Papers which will then get folded into a completely new series. If you are working without an erasure, you are making a bold statement and I admire your confidence. If you are working with a pen you are an idiot. And don’t think that that dinky little erasure at the end of your pencil will suffice, because it surely will not. Quality and quantity people. Related to #3, the band Erasure can also serve as good background noise. A little synthpop goes a long way.
5. Lead. Lots of Lead. Because you will be using a pencil a lot and pencils require lead. Lots of lead. This lead will also break at the most inconvenient of times, so bring your patience hat as well (or get really good at making an exasperated grunt sound like a pneumatic cough so as not freak out those working around you).
6. A good teammate. Whether she or he is there to discuss the finale of Downton Abbey, or as the only person who will understand what you are complaining about when you say your box has thirty folders to title, or to ask where in the world you put a bag of souvenir rocks you found in a collection, a good teammate is irreplaceable. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work for a year with archivist extraordinaire Katie Obriot, along with the various Chicago History Museum staff. Now I am off to work with another fantastic graduate archivist, Beth Loch, on the Vivian Harsh Research Collection to put some of my large collection survival skills to good use, because clearly my sanity-saving guidelines worked on this processor.
By Emily Minehart, (recently graduated) Undergraduate Student Processor
The archival community is pretty goofy. I mean goofy in a good way. It’s easy to spot the archivists; they’re holed off in a corner of the library, looking a little peeved and drinking coffee. (Last week I was asking a supervisor a question. We had to go downstairs to the stacks to figure it out. She sighed and said, “Well. This is going to be a problem. But I’m going to bring my coffee downstairs with me, so at least I can look forward to that.” I find this to be a pretty standard attitude. I also received a mug as a gift recently. It says, “Instant Archivist: Just Add Coffee!” Very accurate.) They’re also probably talking about being underfunded and underappreciated. More specifically, they’re concerned that all other library departments get storage space while the archivists keep boxes on the floor in the corner of the basement.
I recently changed locations with the BMRC. I moved from a Chicago Public Library branch to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Daley Library, and I’m finding archivists across institutions to be rather similar.
1. Coffee lover;
2. More love for manuscripts than people;
3. A deep love of sarcasm; and,
4. Exasperation at the world’s lack of appreciation for archives.
That almost covers it. About 75% of the time we’re also fairly small women (that’s definitely a scientific statistic), which makes for some interesting moments. Personally, I’ve had a few I Love Lucy-worthy episodes of almost-but-not-quite dropping a 40-pound record carton on my foot from off of the highest shelf. There are other times when the box has fallen on my foot. The documents were fine! My foot was less lucky, but also fine! I suppose that’s another thing about archivists: they’re more concerned about the materials than their foot/the dust they accidently ate/the potentially noxious black mold they’re inhaling/the gnarly crusty bits of hardened adhesive stuck to their shirt. (I should mention that those are all totally serious and totally real examples, except the mold. We do worry about breathing in the mold. That stuff is nasty.)
There’s a strange thing about archivists, though, that is contrary to the things that are, more often than not, the same across the profession: there are no real standards from institution to institution. My processing partner, Ben, and I find this curious. Ben assures me that in pursuit of my Master in Library Science, I will have a lot of class discussions about whether or not archivists are considered professionals at all. Can “archival studies” be a profession if there is no set of profession-wide standards? The Society of American Archivists (SAA) governs us. There are annual conferences. There is a standard certification exam. But you can practice without taking that exam, and SAA doesn’t certify advanced degree programs. We have to rely on the American Library Association for that. You can get a “certified” library education that has nothing to do with archives, but still technically have the profession-standard education. There are multiple standard guides from which an institution can choose and still be “correct.” (This webpage just kills me. There must be an easier way!)
It seems to me that SAA should begin to make some executive decisions about how to archive. Any researcher worth their salt recognizes that every different archive has an extraordinarily different way of labeling folders and titling things. Even with experience as a processing archivist, I still get confused when doing research! It’s extremely complicated, and often so intimidating that researchers are turned off and hope they can rely on published materials and the internet in the place of archives. That defeats the purpose of archives entirely.
(A concrete example: DACS, the standard BMRC follows, states that materials with no date should be labeled “undated;” lowercase and never abbreviated “n.d.” for “no date.” One institution that nominally follows DACS as well uses “n.d.” because they sat down with DACS, picked the guidelines they liked, and threw out the rest. What kind of standardization is that?)
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has just released an update to its long-term initiative plan, the Financial Year 2014-2019 Draft Strategic Plan, and is encouraging archivists to read it and offer suggestions before a final version is published. The plan heavily emphasizes standardization and ease of access within NARA, as well as an increased public presence. They have, for example, recently launched the Citizen Archivist program. Anyone with an internet connection can help identify photographs, transcribe written manuscripts, edit articles, and upload their own content. This kind of consolidation, crowd sourcing, and public awareness seems just like what the archival profession (trade?) needs. If any archive can push SAA to create stricter standardization, it’s the monolithic NARA. (Who could say no to David Ferriero? He’s “AOTUS.” Like POTUS, but “Archivist of the United States.” His title? Collector in Chief. I mean come on. How cool is that.) Hopefully SAA will pick up on what NARA and, on a smaller, more twitter-sized scale, a lot of other archives are doing. Do a people search for “archive” on twitter. The results include a lot of archives, a few blogger/archivists, and some open source internet-based initiatives. (NARA is even on tumblr.) The potential is there. The content is there. The archivists are gearing up. The internet revolution is making it easier. The community is communicating. We can achieve a uniform profession-wide standard that takes advantage of technology and social media. It will be a friendlier, simpler, streamlined process, easier for archivists, administrators, and researchers alike. Why hasn’t it happened yet? It’s an endlessly overwhelming undertaking, but in my (not-so-professional) opinion, it’s time.
But of course, I’m a novice, little more than an overeager intern. Perhaps attending graduate school will alter my opinion. I really don’t think it will, though. I think standardization would do nothing but good. And I think this is a very exciting time to be entering the field; I’ve talked to professors, professionals, interns, and graduate students, and they share one additional thing, beyond the coffee and general disgruntled-ness: a feeling that things are about to change. Cheers to my generation. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Someone should start brewing the coffee now, because we’re going to need a lot of it.
By Meghan Courtney, Graduate Student Processor
It’s difficult to avoid being preachy when I explain why you should care about Faith Rich.
Odds are good you’ve never heard of her. She was one of those political operatives who had connections across the city but never grabbed the spotlight for herself. From the 1930s to 1989, she devoted her efforts to organized labor, educational reforms, and housing equality. Above all, she gave her time to the Chicago NAACP. Through her involvement with the Westside Branch, Rich served as Chairman of the Education Committee and worked to eliminate racial segregation in Chicago Public Schools. She hoped to use political means to eliminate discrimination in education, in employment, and in social relations.
But politics in Chicago have a way of staying the same.
Rich fought against biased school closings that disproportionately affected African American students. She studied the proposals of the Chicago Housing Authority and read Urban Renewal plans by the boxful, knowing the proposed plans would create even deeper inequalities in housing. She supported the Guaranteed Job Opportunity Senate Bill 777, which would have provided guaranteed environmental jobs to workers unable to find employment, much like the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal. Rich wrote to Congress, served in her local PTA, and organized colleagues to support her work. As early as 1950, she studied hiring patterns in Illinois firms to identify bias and possible solutions for systemic discrimination.
Through her own research, Rich correctly predicted how the city’s social policies would alter the lives of Chicagoans years down the road. She approached her topics as a social scientist, without undue sentimentality. But as much as her work over nearly 60 years as a community activist illuminates the issues in twentieth century Chicago, it also reminds us that those issues are left unsolved.
You shouldn’t know about Faith Rich because she was the most influential woman in the city, or because she changed the way we function as a society, because those things aren’t true. You certainly shouldn’t know about her because she wanted attention – she did not. You should care because she spent her time doing the difficult, emotionally taxing, slow moving work towards an elusive goal of equality. That work is continued by people like Rich, who believe in their goals no matter how many times they face the same problems in Chicago. The Chicago Reader published a brief article on Rich in 1987, citing her hope as a driving force in her life. That hope is apparent in the Faith Rich Papers.
(By Emily Minehart: BMRC Processing Intern)
I spend a lot of my time, a lot of it, explaining what an archivist does. I also spend a lot of time watching people’s eyes glaze over when I describe the details of processing a collection: the digging through endless boxes; the labeling, erasing, re-labeling, re-erasing, and re-re-labeling folders until there is eraser snow so far under my nails there’s no hope of getting it out; the paper cuts; the endless debate over just the right place for that God-forsaken oversized box in the container list; the never-ending trail of the greatest of all inventions, colorful Post-its; the tedium, always the tedium. This is certainly not a profession for the impatient, and I can easily understand why people look at me with bored horror when I explain what I want to do with my life. I recognize that I sound insane when I elatedly explain the miracle of file folders. (Bless you, you magnificent person who invented the three creases at the bottom of folders to expand them.) Maybe I am crazy, maybe all archivists are crazy. That is certainly a possibility I have considered. But I also think this community of maybe-crazy people does important, exciting work, and I think this is what I haven’t been able to explain to those other people, those future-teacher, future-lawyer, future-nurse friends of mine whose eyes glaze over. So here’s my next attempt:
We get to talk to dead people.
That statement probably isn’t a good case for my sanity, but it’s about the closest explanation I have for why I love what I get to do at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. Yes, I have gone home with cracked, nearly bleeding hands from digging through crumbling newspaper clippings from nine to five. But I also go home with a new perspective on the world, knowledge of the past and of a person that I had never known before. In Spanish there are two verbs that mean “to know.” Saber is to know facts, dates, things. Conocer is to be acquainted with people and places. Saber comes from history books, conocer comes from interaction. I get to know, in the conocer sense, people and places that are gone or otherwise inaccessible to me, people and places that I would only know in the saber sense if I did not do what I do. I get to talk to dead people.
Beth Loch and I are currently working on the Eugene Winslow Papers at Harsh. Winslow was a writer and artist who worked in publishing in Chicago, especially at the Afro-AM Publishing Company, in the 1960s and ‘70s. He illustrated, and was a ghostwriter for, the first biographical compendium of African American historical figures, Great Negroes, Past and Present. Winslow died in 2001, but I still get to have conversations with him, I get to know, conocer, him. Sure, I know his biography, I know that he was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and that he graduated from Dillard University, but I also know that he liked to copy line drawings of people while he read articles about them and that he recorded his dreams in scrawling, looping cursive. I know he used scraps of art and graphics from magazines as inspiration for his own art, sometimes scraps as small as the nail on my pinky finger. (Those, I might add, are not particularly fun to work with. I am developing a gloriously attractive hunchback and a permanent squint.) Winslow kept his papers in a very particular order; that order told me that he was especially interested in African American inventors, musicians, and writers, that he was fascinated by the race of the Egyptian pharaohs.
Of course, archival collections cannot tell an entire life story, every minute detail. More often than not when I talk to dead people I’m asking them ceaselessly tiresome questions. Why did you include Abraham Lincoln’s file in Subject Files rather than Biographical Files? What on earth is on that film role? What exactly was your relationship with President Clinton, that he wrote you a personal letter? Those questions don’t get answered because, alas, I can’t actually commune with the dead, though that would doubles be a useful skill for an archivist. I think the mystery, though, is part of the fun. It leads me on a dusty, musty quest through the collection to try to understand, to unpack the way Winslow thought when he arranged his papers the way he did. I try to think the way he thought. This is how I really get to know Winslow.
For me, the beauty of processing a collection is in the conocer, the really knowing someone. I get a sense of accomplishment from the sea of manila folders lined up in a lovely row, and I feel like I’m contributing something to society knowing that researchers can now access the collections I have processed, but those are extra benefits. It’s all about touching the paper, digging into someone else’s life, the mystery of it. It is slowly, one piece of doodled-upon paper at a time, assembling the puzzle of a life. It is starting to work on a collection only knowing a person’s dates and a few lines of their biography, then leaving it feeling like I have a personal relationship with them. It is looking at their papers, their life, the world from their perspective. Being an archivist is like looking at a pointillist painting. Standing with your nose touching the canvas staring at that weirdly tantalizing dot is like looking at individual papers. But when you step back from the painting and watch Seurat’s lovely park take shape, that is like processing a collection. And it’s beautiful.
The next time people ask me what I do I’m going to tell them that I’m currently in a relationship with the late Eugene Winslow. Crazy? Probably. But also fairly true. Maybe I’ll buy an Ouija board.
(By Katie Obriot: BMRC Processing Intern)
The Reverend J.H. Jackson Collection is through and through a civil rights collection. Jackson is perhaps best known as the president of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) – the longest term in the history of that organization – and for his feud with Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. resulting in the separation of the NBC in 1961. Through processing his papers it became clear early on that his work and personal life overlapped or rather that his life was his work and his worship. Handwritten notes, speeches, addresses, general writings, and correspondence can be found throughout the collection and reveal his passion for humanity. Below is a handwritten address transcribed for this blog post, a mere snapshot of his immense writings:
Written in Philadelphia, November 1978
The Writer’s Position
In a sit-in all are involved. It demonstrates or indicates that we have taken too seriously the old polarization of Caucasian and Negro, white and black. And in the light of this polarization, I fear we as a race have spent too much time at the white man’s door, knocking, protesting, complaining, and venting our resentment and our anger. We are aware that the battle against race prejudice in America is a major one. The drive against the high wall of discrimination and second class citizenship are difficult and of primary importance. This struggle must continue.
But not all of our troops for this aspect of our life struggle must or should remain in the old position on that firing line where there is the Caucasian – Negro, or white – black encounter. The mistakes and errors are not restricted to white Christians, to white Americans, some of the errors that plague America and the churches of America are found in all the races and peoples including this writer, many leaders of the race, and all others.
What then must the spirit be? All have sinned. All have brought some social guilt and moral gloom upon the U.S. social order. We must go on contending for the right, opposing the sins in our American system, but not forgetting to confess the sins in our own race, our own homes, our own communities, and in our own minds, hearts, and souls.
We must now concentrate some of our efforts on issues and problems where the race faces the race. There must be a new evaluation of the untapped resources among us and the unharnessed talents within us.
The sins within the race must be faced frankly and confessed. The errors of judgment must be assessed and we must learn a greater appreciation of ourselves as individuals and as a group. A climate in the U.S. that tends to exempt our race from criticism, and to blame the social order for all our mistakes, by that thrust reduces our race to a second class position in this democratic social order. People of character and worth should carry the weight of their responsibility, and take the blame for their wrong choices or for making no choices. We are entitled to know the truth, to be told the truth, and to be held to the consequences whenever the true principles of life are ignored or sinned against.
Away with that demand for the unity of the race that invoke silence against our known errors and failures. This is no time for the making of false heroes and pseudo leaders of the race made by a biased white press. Reject and reject we must those members of our race who appear as saints among white observers and expect to be our spokesmen and standard by which we are judged. When among us, they are enemies of their brothers, and hypocrites to the manner born.
The true test of negro leaders are not those who use us for support and backing, and as a threat to the white community if the white leaders do not do what they say and give them what they want, the true leaders of the negro race are selected by their own people because of the love and respect they have won among them. And they will respect and honor their own people and will avoid bringing shame or disgrace upon them.
Negros will not and cannot be blessed by those eloquent speakers who council their Negro brothers to curse the white people on whom such hypocrisies secretly rely for financial aid and support.
Beware of those Negroes who take out membership in Negro and white conventions, when they honor and support the latter, and come to the former to display the disrespect, and all within their power to pull the Negro group down to the dust of same.
Is your outburst and disorder the result of your ostracism, and your commonness received from a group that tolerates you, but has no real place for you?
Those who make the supreme sacrifice to make their own churches and conventions as great and as meaningful as possible do so because they have no other one to which to turn as a refuge from intimidation, embarrassment, and confusion.
People who love their church or their convention have no difficulty following and respecting leadership. It is no grave sin to leave a church that you do not love whose pastor you cannot respect, if said pastor is the choice of the majority who can respect and honor him as pastor.”
-Joseph H. Jackson
Reverend J. H. Jackson papers (Chicago History Museum) handwritten piece on civil rights in the United States, November 1978, box 24.