Thursday, July 29, 2010

Archives and Publics: Handling History

Archives preserve collections of documents, records, and manuscripts that hold some level of historical interest. This can include documents of national importance, such as the Declaration of Independence, down to a local company’s financial records. However, one of the most interesting types of collections that can be found in an archives is that of the common person. As an archivist-in-training, I have the opportunity to access these pieces of history as well as to learn how to handle them and preserve them properly. According to fellow intern Sarah Warren, that is why she chose the archival field of history as her career path. “I realized that I have the chance to maintain documents, letters, and photographs,” she notes. “To have direct contact with personal stories as a full-time job seemed too good to be true.” By training how to be archivists and public historians, we can organize these documents created by everyday people and give them a value and voice that they may not have otherwise. (Right: photographs, Archives Division, AARL.)

Archival study can serve as a branch of public history because, as archivists, we are trained to preserve historical documents for public access. We learn preservation and processing techniques and put them to practical use in the public forum so that researchers can use these historical items for years to come. Archives serve a similar purpose as a museum: they maintain documents of the past for the benefit of the present and future. Shannon Danielle Smith, another University of West Georgia intern, considers the idea of “putting history into practice in the public field, rather than inside a classroom” the best part of being a historian.

The University of West Georgia’s Public History Program gives both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to take classes and learn how best to present historical information to the public. We are trained not only to teach, but also to interpret and exhibit. Graduate students have the opportunity to earn a Museum Studies Certificate, which offers classes in conjunction with the Atlanta History Center and trains in all aspects of museum careers: exhibits, collections, administration, and education. The archival branch of the public history program offers courses in basic theory and management as well as an advanced practicum, which offers hands-on experience in the Archives Division at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. Through classes, internships, and research assistantships, we have the chance to work directly within our field so that we are prepared to pursue a career in promoting history to the public in museum and archival settings.

Through graduate internships, I have had access to rare books and artifacts that I never thought I would have access to. An education in archival and historical preservation involves handling history in a way that not only enriches our studies but also our passion for history. Archives offer direct contact with history itself, whether it includes perusing a personal collection like that of James Bryant Smith, or researching the Georgia Political Heritage Collection at the University of West Georgia. Entering the professional field of public history means that I will get to share that passion with the general population on both local and national levels. The work that I am being trained to do behind the scenes creates an accessible way for the public to interact with history on a hands-on, personal level that reaches beyond looking at a museum exhibit through plated glass. (Left: rare book by Phillis Wheatley, Archives Division, AARL.)

Posted by Tiffany Luoma, University of West Georgia Intern

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Archives and Publics: A Scholar Taps Community Memory

From time to time, a new feature, Archives and Publics, will focus on connections between archives and various publics – scholars, interns, genealogists, students, documentary filmmakers, authors, and others. Through this series, we hope to draw attention to the ways in which different groups access and use archives.

Here, Dr. Barbara McCaskill, one of our researchers, asks the public to share information about a little-known African American reporter, photographer, and filmmaker: J. (Joseph) Richardson Jones (b. January 12, 1900, d. February 9, 1948). While Dr. McCaskill and Christina L. Davis of the University of Georgia have conducted extensive archival research across the country, they hope to tap into community and individual memories of Richardson. The documents below summarize their findings thus far and offer contact information.

Please share. Thank you.

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Archives Intern, and Wesley Chenault, Library Research Associate

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Life and Letters of James Bryant Smith

As part of the Advanced Archives Practicum class offered by the University of West Georgia's Public History Program, we are required to complete seventy-five internship hours for Auburn Avenue Research Library. Our first group project was to process the James Bryant Smith Collection, which details the life of the Tuskegee Airman from Columbus, Ohio.

A war veteran and POW, Smith’s collection contains over 750 letters to and from his wife, Florence Smith. The majority of the letters date from 1943 and 1944, when Smith left Columbus to become one of the first airmen to complete aviation training at Tuskegee Air Field. Several significant personal events are recorded in these early letters, from James and Florence’s engagement and marriage to the birth of their first child. The Smiths also corresponded about their day-to-day activities, which included his flight training and her work at an Ohio airplane assembly plant.

Smith arrived at the Tuskegee Air Field in Alabama in January 1943 and trained as a fighter pilot with the 1155th Single Engine Flying Training Squadron (S.E.F.T.S.). Smith remained a career serviceman after World War II ended, and he served in various training capacities in Hawaii and Colorado. When the Korean War began in 1950, Smith’s unit was quickly shipped out. On September 8th his family received notice that he had been missing in action since July 26th. During this time, for approximately three months, Smith was a Prisoner of War.

As a Tuskegee Airman, Smith was in a unique position to help improve race relations within the nation. Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, no African Americans had been military pilots, and the War Department was so resistant of the notion that it attempted to eliminate the unit before it could even begin. Only those with a certain level of flight experience or higher education could apply, but it underestimated the number of eligible men who would apply. James and Florence discussed other racially-charged events, such as the Detroit Race Riots in June 1943, as well as every-day discrimination, like the segregation of train cars.

In addition to James and Florence Smith’s correspondence during World War II, the collection also highlights Smith’s subsequent military career. Smith saved many documents, publications, and artifacts from his service in the 1950s and 1960s, which would be of great interest to military enthusiasts.

Posted by Shannon Danielle Smith and Sarah Warren, University of West Georgia interns

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Treasures from the Vertical Files: American Negro Exposition of 1940

Today’s spotlighted treasure is the program and guide book of the American Negro Exposition, held in Chicago from July 4 through September 2, 1940. (Left: Cover art by R.S. Pious)

Organized by African Americans, this diamond jubilee of the abolition of slavery celebrated African American achievement during the previous seventy-five years. Amidst a national climate of prejudice and discrimination against African Americans, one of the Exposition's goals was to promote racial understanding and good will.

Organizers successfully solicited pledges of financial support and exhibits for display from federal and state governments, charitable foundations, businesses, and fraternal organizations. (Right: A page of local business ads in the Exposition program.)

Organizers also hoped to educate the world about the contributions of African Americans to civilization. Using dioramas, murals, and exhibits, entire sections of the exposition were devoted to representations of African American religion, music, sports, literature, art, science, and industry. A hall of fame featured portraits of 30 African Americans.
The American Negro Exposition (left) followed a century-long tradition of expositions and world’s fairs, including the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1889, and Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. These expositions gave visitors the opportunity to see and experience new technologies (electricity, Ferris wheel, Eiffel Tower), products (carbonated soda, Juicy Fruit gum and Cream of Wheat), and peoples (Lapps, Native Americans, Africans). Most world’s fairs also reinforced the imagined superiority of colonial powers, contrasting their industrial and technological inventions to anthropological exhibits of “primitive” colonized peoples. One such example at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition was an exhibit of Filipino Igorot peoples, who lived in a village on the fairgrounds, constantly on display as exotic “savages.”

The representation of people of color as inferior and uncivilized did not go unchallenged. For the 1900 Paris Exposition, W.E.B. Du Bois created the “American Negro Exhibit” to demonstrate the dramatic progress of African Americans in the thirty-five years since emancipation. This exhibit of 50 photographs featured various aspects of African American middle-class life including images of people, homes, businesses, professional organizations, schools, and churches.

Hailed as “the first real Negro World’s Fair,” the 1940 American Negro Exposition was an even more ambitious attempt for African Americans to control the representation of their achievements and aspirations. Unfortunately, despite initial support, the American Negro Exposition was plagued by poor attendance, labor strife, and withdrawal of promised sponsorship. Nevertheless, historian Adam Green cites the Exposition as an often forgotten example of African Americans proactively shaping their lives and communities. (Right: Artist William Edouard Scott painted murals depicting important scenes in African American history to surround the general exhibition hall.)


“American Negro Exposition,” The Crisis 1940 (June): 175, 178.

Green, Adam. Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Rose, Julie K. “The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath.” Published August, 1, 1996.

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Archives Intern

Treasures from the Vertical Files

We’ll be launching a new feature called Treasures from the Vertical Files, highlighting nuggets from our vertical files collection. Archivists frequently assemble vertical files of materials for quick reference about individuals, events, and organizations. Vertical files usually consist of newspaper clippings and ephemera (materials for a specific purpose, and that were generally designed to be discarded after use), such as ads, event programs, and brochures. Since vertical files are typically compiled on an as-needed basis by different people over a period of decades, sometimes little is known about the origin of the materials. In this way, vertical files often contain unexpected treasures of unusual materials.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mary Parks Washington Papers

One of the jobs that archivists do is process collections. When collections arrive at the archives, they are often unorganized or organized in a way that only makes sense to the creator of the collection. In addition, an archivist may need to treat preservation issues such as mold, acidic paper (for example, brittle, yellowed newspaper), or damaging adhesives. During processing, archivists arrange, preserve, and describe collections so that they are accessible to users.

This summer, I’ve been working on processing the papers of Mary Parks Washington, an Atlanta-born visual artist, arts educator, and arts advocate. Washington uses the art forms of drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage to explore themes of history and memory. She also developed a unique collage form which she calls “histcollage,” an assemblage of old documents (such as family photos, insurance policies, and letters) that she incorporates into her drawings and paintings.

As a young woman, Washington had several experiences that helped nurture her talents and love of the arts. Washington exhibited her artwork while she was still in high school at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High. The artist Hale Woodruff, a professor at Spelman College, was one of the judges and continued to mentor her when she attended Spelman to study art.

After her graduation from Spelman in 1946, Woodruff helped Washington receive a scholarship from the Rosenwald Fund to attend the Summer Art Institute at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Washington’s experience at Black Mountain was a contrast to her life and schooling in Atlanta. In addition to being at a racially integrated institution, classes were informal with students often spreading their work on the floor to be critiqued by their instructors. Washington bought a pair of “dungarees” especially for the relaxed atmosphere since she had never before worn pants. At Black Mountain Washington studied with several renowned artists including Josef Albers, Jean Varda, Beaumont Newhall, and Gwendolyn Knight. It was at Black Mountain that Washington developed lifelong friendships with Knight, her husband artist Jacob Lawrence, and sculptor Ruth Asawa, who was one of her roommates.

Following her summer at Black Mountain, Washington began her career as a teacher at David T. Howard High School. In 1947, Washington once again used her summer vacation to study art, this time at the University of Mexico. In order to forestall desegregation attempts in higher education, the State of Georgia paid the out-of-state tuition for African American students. Using Georgia’s segregationist policies to her advantage, Washington was the first person to receive out-of-country tuition from Georgia. Her histcollage Georgia Out-of-State Tuition explores this experience.The Mary Parks Washington Papers document these events as well as Washington’s career as an arts educator, her friendships with artists; her role as arts advocate, and her participation in civic and community service organizations.

Photo credits: Mary Parks Washington at Black Mountain College,1946, Photographer: Beaumont Newhall. Marriage License and Georgia Out-of-State Tuition, excerpted from Atlanta: Remembrances, Impressions and Reflections, 1996 © Mary Parks Washington, Photographers: James Devrances & John Bremons

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Archives Intern


Welcome to the blog of the Archives Division of the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History (AARL)! Staff and interns will share news and information about the collections and activities of the AARL Archives Division. The posts will also discuss what archivists do, why archives are important, and how archives are relevant to you. Let us know if there are certain topics you’d like us to address.