Senator Carol Moseley Braun Collection

By: Amber Bailey (BMRC Processing Intern)

After three months of processing the massive Carol Moseley-Braun Collection, I think that it’s safe to say that the most interesting documents in the collection can be found in the first folder of the first box of the third series.  Since it’ll be a little while longer before processing is complete, I’ll go ahead and give you a little bit of a spoiler (consider this your spoiler alert): the folder’s title is “Lunatic Letters.”   Now, I don’t want to ruin the suspense for anyone, so I won’t tell you exactly what’s in the folder.  But I will tell you that one of the letters uncovers a conspiracy involving the former Senator, Catholic clergy, and an evil polka dance.  I told you it was good stuff.

When I first came across it, rather than skimming the folder’s title, putting it in a Hollinger box, and moving on to the next one (as is usually the case), I decided to open up the folder and take a look.  It was probably the genius employment of alliteration that made me so curious.  Whatever the reason, after a not-so-brief perusal, it became apparent that most of these letters weren’t the ramblings of “lunatics” but good old timey (perhaps a little disturbed) racist Americans.  Except that these letters were written in the 1990s, not the 1890s.  And they weren’t addressed to some shiftless criminal but a United States Senator.

Out of propriety, I won’t repeat some of the epithets that were hurled at Senator Moseley-Braun, the first and so-far only black woman to hold that title.  But think back to some of the racist remarks that have been directed towards President Obama, and you’ll get a general idea.  As much as some people would like to think that we live in a post-racial society, these “lunatic letters” have only reminded me that we don’t.

But nothing that I write can erase the color line that W.E.B. Du Bois astutely identified as the predominant problem of the twentieth – and I’d like to add the twenty-first – centuries.  Senator Moseley-Bran and President Obama’s landmark achievements clearly didn’t do it either.  Quite honestly, I have no idea what will.

What I do know, however, is that projects like the BMRC are tremendously important to the goal of resuming constructive conversations of race and the contributions of black people to American history and society.  As a Chicago resident, it’s hard to visit certain neighborhoods like Marquette Park or Englewood and see violence, poverty, and ignorance overwhelm whatever hope and potential for change exists there.  But as a nascent researcher and historian, it’s easy to look past the rundown and abandoned buildings that line streets in Bronzeville, and mentally reconstruct the grandeur of the city’s black neighborhoods and the dignity and excitement of early black Chicago life.  And in this ability lies the importance of my job, the Color Curtain Project, and the BMRC in general.

For all of the craziness that I found in the “lunatic letters” and despite my indifferent opinion of the Senator’s politics, going through the letters made me appreciate even more the significance of her achievement and the strength of her character.  And it is my sincerest hope that not only will the Color Curtain Project bring others to such a realization, but also that the rich legacy and contributions of African Americans in this city and elsewhere might also be magnified in the historical narrative.