Friday, 26 September 2014

Article Review: The Strange Career of Jim Crow Archives: Race, Space, and History in the Mid-Twentieth Century American South

Article Review: The Strange Career of Jim Crow Archives: Race, Space, and History in the Mid-Twentieth-Century American South
Author: Alex H. Poole
Publication: American Archivist, Volume 77, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2014, (23-63)

Alex Poole wrote this article in an attempt to describe the “agency and power wielded by archival professionals ”in the writing of history and the implicit fact that the archives are never a neutral space. Poole indicts a generation of archivists for failing to reach out to diverse users and holds them accountable for often exclusive record-collecting and record keeping practices. The title of the article comes from C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, where Woodward describes how the impact of segregation is better understood through the lens of an average person than the laws, themselves.

In the early 20th century, the challenge to African American historians, all six of them nationally by 1935, was two fold; accessing primary sources in segregated facilities, and interpreting the history of African Americans from the South (in materials where they were not authentically represented) beyond the “happy slave” and the "lazy freedman". From a political perspective, there was no way that African Americans could be full citizens if they could not participate in or access the archives.Poole describes the experiences of historians, John Hope Franklin, Luther Porter Jackson, Helen G. Edmonds, and Lawrence Dunbar Reddick to explain his point. Jim Crow reared his ugly head, when archival materials pertaining to African American people were vandalized or removed, African American scholars were only allowed to enter the reading room when the white scholars were finished, Ms. Edmonds was sent to the Morehead Planetarium, across campus, to use the restroom.In some cases, students would have to work subversively with the janitors to get access to materials.

Poole analyzes the actions and declarations of several large history and archival professional organizations (SHA, ALA, SAA, MVHA) to demonstrate how they implicitly condoned segregation through annual meetings in segregated cities or keeping silent about the issue in various instances. In North Carolina specifically, segregation in the state library was legal; which insulated archivists from “confronting moral choices”. Archivists at UNC were further empowered to design their own criteria for “valid” reasons and sufficient evidence for African Americans to provide in order to use the stacks. Poole describes a long list of UNC administrative and library leaders, throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, who would sweep the issue of segregation under the rug in attempts at "civility" and maintaining the status quo, even when the African American patrons did their research without incident.

The Women’s College in Greensboro had a different trajectory; a progressive librarian (Charles M. Adams) went against a more conservative chancellor (Edward Kidder Graham Jr.) when he allowed an African American student to walk through the front door of the library. Under pressure from the Board of Trustees, Adams had to explain that there were very few African Americans who used the library and they were all “professionally minded” in addition, when the library at NC A&T was complete, there would be even less. Armed with similar reports from other North Carolina university libraries,the board agreed that library use by African Americans was sufficiently restricted. By 1955, with the passing of Brown vs. the Board of Education, many UNC leaders were surprised and indignant; subsequently vacating their positions or moving toward integration at the pace of molasses, which of course enabled de-facto segregation.

Overall, Poole makes a provocative case about the sins of our (archival) fathers; and gives us a proverbial gut check about acceptable behavior of our times. Are there ways that we can correct errors from the past? How can we be more conscientious and aware today, to ensure that we are remembered on the right side of history? As one of the newest members of the curatorial staff at Southern Historical Collection, an African American woman, and an archivist who believes in our social justice mandate; this article was especially relevant to me. The sheer fact that my training in grassroots archives has become an asset to a department that has been historically run by major figures in the academy, indicates the distance that we have traveled. Thank you Mr. Poole for using archives, to tell a story about archives, a story that keeps me searching for all of those missing pieces.

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