Kathleen Roe 2015-03-28 05:05:32
We’ve recently concluded American Archives Month, a time to celebrate both archivists and the archival records that exist in so many archives, libraries, museums, corporations, historical societies, and organizations around the country. There have been exhibits, tours, posters, tweets, blog posts, special events, and an amazing array of activities that demonstrate the pride so many take in our profession. Congratulations to all of you who put your energy and dedication into American Archives Month. What we do is important, truly. There are many things I value about being an archivist. I chose this profession intentionally. I know it has both challenges and amazing moments, and yes, after thirtyplus years, I still find things to astound, inspire, perplex, and energize me. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the years is “getting to know” people whom I will never encounter in real life—not because I only know them through the Internet, blogs, or twitter, but because, well, they are no longer alive. They are the voices that come from the records with which I’ve worked. Those letters, census pages, photographs, wills, and even maps provide the glimpses of a life lived in my “neighborhood” (in this case the state of New York), and some tell compelling stories that intrigue and engage me. One of my archival neighbors who I think of periodically is Genevieve Hankins-Hawke. I got to know Genevieve through the records of New York State’s World War II War Council. Genevieve was a thirty-something African American nurse, widow, and mother during the war. She saw a job posting for a nursing position at a hospital in Salamanca (in western New York). She sent in her impressive résumé and application letter. Travel was more challenging at that time, there was a serious need for nurses, and hiring practices were different—so she was immediately offered a position, also by mail. When she reported for work, the hospital administrator said, “Oh, my, we didn’t realize you were a negro. We can’t have you working here.” She was “dismissed” and made the considerable journey back to her home in downstate New York. She reported this to the New York State Commission against Discrimination in Employment in a very controlled, but (for me) emotional, handwritten letter of many pages. The commission staff responded by helping her find a nursing position in another hospital. After getting to know Genevieve through her letter and files, I’ve often wondered about the rest of the story. Did she feel the commission’s response was adequate? I know I didn’t, but then I’m projecting my views from a different time and cultural space. Did the commission take action with the hospital? How did her career progress after that? Did her encounters with racism in her profession continue—I’m guessing yes, and I wonder how she dealt with them. And finally, I sometimes think, just maybe, is she still alive? I’ve not found any answers yet and that’s a story for which I may never know the ending, a life about which I will always wonder. But Genevieve’s story gave a very direct and personal voice to the experience of racism, and it is one I share with others and have carried with me in the more than twenty-five years since I processed the records. Archives have an incredible power to expand the range of people and stories we know and the experiences in which we can share through another person’s life—and it creates a neighborhood without boundaries of place or time. So as we continue with our work as archivists, I hope you’ll think about the historical neighbors you’ve met, and perhaps share their stories with others. To fracture Robert Frost’s poem a bit, “Archives make good neighbors.”
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