Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Professional Development Call: Mr. Samuel Black

Professional Development Call: January 24, 2013
John Heinz History Center – Pittsburgh, PA

Educational Background
Mr. Samuel Black went to Wilmington College on a football scholarship and studied Art in the late 1970s.  Black was one of thirteen children and he felt that one of his other siblings was more deserving of his parents’ limited resources, so he dropped out. His father convinced him to return to school. Black chose to attend the University of Cincinnati for its architecture program, he chose electives in the African American Studies department. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in African American Studies, and went on to teach math and science in a Cincinnati middle school. Black decided to return to college in order to earn masters from SUNY Albany in 1991. When he returned to Cincinnati, his teaching job was unavailable so he began working in social services. After working on an oral history project with high school students and meeting an archivist at the Western Reserve Historical Society, Black became interested in archives as a profession.

Professional Involvement
Since the early 1990's, Black has moved to the museum side of the house. He has chaired panels on African American Archives for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASAALH).  Black is currently the president of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM). AAAM is extremely vested in nurturing the next generation of museum professionals. He believes that people should get into the field because it is personally enriching, even if there is not a bunch of money to be made.

Western Reserve Historical Society
Black worked at the Western Reserve Historical Society for 10 years. Black sees the value in working at a place long enough to develop institutional memory. His colleagues at Western Reserve still call him today with questions about the collection. He encourages young archivists to take time to get familiar with the collection, beyond just looking at the finding aid. This practice makes you a better asset for the institution and the researchers.

John Heinz History Center
Black moved to Pittsburgh in 2002 to work as the curator of African American collections at the John Heinz History Center. He was recently promoted to become the Director of African American programs. Black has worked at the John Heinz History Center for 12 years. His current role allows him to; curate exhibits, choose the collections to be acquired, engage with the community and seek funding for the institution. The Center currently has two chief archivists, one curator, and a museum director. The Heinz Center uses PastPerfect software to catalog their materials.

African Americans in Archives
Black spent a few moments reflecting on the black archivists, like Karen Jefferson, Donald West, and Darrell Williams, who were involved in the Society of American Archivists in the early 90s. The currently named Archives and Archivists of Color Roundtable was named ATWAR, standing for African and Third World Archives Roundtable. It was this group that initiated the first HBCU Collection Survey, which was quite groundbreaking at the time. This roundtable was continuing the work of DuBois and Schomberg by collecting materials that document the Black Experience. Diversity is quite critical in our profession. 50 years ago, mainstream institutions began collecting black history as a means to scoop up more funding resources, taking money away from black organizations that had been collecting the history all along. The Association of African American Museums works with many of the smaller museums around the country to ensure that they get what they need to keep their doors open. There are 320 Black museums in the United States.

Best Advice
As a researcher who is working on his third book, Black understands the value in the archivist. He also understands that funding is the biggest challenge in most archival organizations. Leaders of these organizations should look to professional networks to find solutions to funding problems. Black remembers paying for conferences out of his own pocket because it was so important to meet people and develop a network. Even organizations that are supported by government resources can suffer with a shift in politics that could translate to a removal of institutional funds. Developing the skills that will allow you to communicate the value of your work to potential funders is something else that we should all work on. Black’s last piece of advice was for us to be professional by seeing things through.

Samuel Black has curated quite a few exhibits over the course of his career. The fellows took this opportunity to ask him about his methodology. When you have an idea for an exhibit, you must think it through very well. You have to figure out which story you are trying to tell. Creating an outline can be helpful. Black’s signature design elements in his exhibits are typically a piece of art and some sort of music. He is also sure to incorporate archival materials, because there is power in seeing various components of the black experience.  

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