Doretha K. Williams 2016-03-14 15:50:45
Covered in copper-colored dust, the oversized nineteenth-century ledgers crack when opened. Stored on shelves several stacks deep at the D.C. Archives, these impressive books hold information about the nation’s capital prior to the Civil War. The ledgers are the records of the Alms House hospital and detail how D.C. residents received healthcare in as early as 1850. Many of the patients who sought medical services at the Alms House were black, and racial background was specified as white or colored, referenced by a lowercase “w” or “c” next to each patient’s name. The names of black D.C. residents increasingly dominate the pages, indicating a rise in the black population. “The Records: Demonstrations and Civil Disturbances” collection is another important archive containing reports and debriefings of local demonstrations, such as how the city responded to the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of 1968 and the protest activities initiated by the Black United Front and the Poor People’s Campaign. These record books, files, and archival boxes—along with many other collections— capture the detailed narratives of Africana history and culture dating from the seventeenth century to the present. The D.C. Africana Archives Project (DCAAP) serves to process collections housed at six repositories and collaborate to assure accessibility of these underused archives. DCAAP is funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources and implemented by the George Washington University Gelman Library Special Collections and the Africana Studies Program. The consortium institutions include the Special Collections at the George Washington University, the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History, D.C. Archives, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Public Library, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. From Activism to Art—A Treasure Trove! The collections processed through DCAAP are as diverse as the repositories within the consortium. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (MSRC), housing more than sixty of the unprocessed collections, serves as the archival foundation for the project. The collections highlight the histories of the students, professors, and administrators who built Howard University, scholars who contributed to research and publications about African American culture, and noted politicians who directed a city in transition. For example, the prolific literary scholar Arthur P. Davis spent the majority of his career at Howard University, publishing and teaching in the field of African American literature. The co-author of The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes and Cavalcade: Negro American Writers from 1760 to the Present, Davis’s collection includes his correspondence, literary research, and departmental material. Elsie Brown Smith was a noted leader of integration. Smith began working at Dunbar High School in 1918, and created the first National Honor Society chapter for the school in 1924 and the Girls Victory Corps during WWII. In the 1950s, Smith was involved in the issues surrounding school integration, both locally and nationally. Smith’s collection includes a remarkable compilation of integration pamphlets marketed to D.C.-area schools and teachers. As the first African American mayor to serve D. C., Walter E. Washington’s collection captures the life of a leader who ushered in an era of home governance and political status. While Washington presided over a city in the midst of racial and social unrest, its citizens still found pride in the political and economic accomplishments of the 1960s. Among the several collections examining the diasporic nature of Africana history are the Sixth Pan-African Congress papers, which examine the gathering hosted for the first time on the continent of Africa. At this meeting, more than sixty-two nationalist and liberation movements and organizations were represented. The themes and issues discussed at the congress included achieving independence for all African colonies, and self-determination and self-reliance for all Africans. Anchoring DCAPP is the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, with collections on the history of Africana arts and culture. With his brilliant mind and observant eye, Addison Scurlock, a black portrait photographer, provides photographic evidence of the city’s Africana history and culture, capturing a burgeoning middle class in transition. With race an ever-present issue, especially in the nation’s capital, Scurlock’s collection of photographs, maintained by the Scurlock Studios for more than eighty years, offers a visual storyline for the archival research we will conduct through DCAAP. While the heyday of jazz music may be attributed to New York City, the D.C. music scene was also important to the development of what is considered the most American of sounds. The Duke Ellington, Bobby Tucker, and Duncan P. Schiedt collections housed at the Archives Center offer a narrative of jazz life in D.C. and of many great musicians who maintained D. C. roots, including Florence Mills, Billy Eckstine, and Jelly Roll Morton. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library (DCPL) branch holds the archival histories of the grassroots organizations and individuals who fought for social and political justice. Activists Arrington Dixon and Hilda Mason served on the first city councils. Mason was a teacher, counselor, and administrator in the D.C. public school system and was later elected to the Board of Education in 1972. Dixon was elected to the D.C. city council in 1974, one of the first council members to be seated in the newly established governing body. He would later run for chairman of the city council when colleague and fellow council member Sterling Tucker ran for mayor. Dixon won the seat and aided his friend, Charlene Drew Jarvis, to secure his vacant seat. DCPL holds the records of these and other pioneers who fashioned a foundation for a city with dreams of self-governance and national recognition. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., holds collections on the development of local neighborhoods and their shifting geographical boundaries. The Archaeological Survey of the Southwest Quadrant of Washington, D. C., incorporated an oral history component using longstanding members of the community to study the Anacostia/Barry Farms, Upper Cardozo/Columbia Heights, and Congress Heights neighborhoods in Southwest D.C. In a city of swiftly changing demographics, much of the historic narratives of Africana life and culture would remain buried if not for these collections. Looking Ahead Through its research, DCAAP seeks to go beyond the well-noted narratives and pose questions that interrogate the importance of these collections: What is unique about the history of Africana life and culture in D. C.? What role does a black majority play in the development of political systems and social justice? How do the unique cultural experiences, political movements, economic progressions, artistic expressions, and educational institutions in Washington, D.C., expand the historical narrative of Africana history nationwide? It is not surprising that there is a large amount of material documenting the Africana experience in D.C. What is surprising is that a great portion of the history undergirding these narratives is hidden in collections that remain only partially accessible because they are unprocessed or simply lack a finding aid. Over the next year, DCAAP will process and provide access to more than 100 collections containing photographs, documents, and films that create a narrative of the lives of D.C.’s black communities, businesses, schools, and political movements. To follow the process and uncover some of the stories for yourself, visit http://library.gwu.edu/dcaap.
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