A Bold Commitment to African American Archives at UNC

February 3, 2016

This is an archival post originally published on February 3, 2016.

Some of the oldest documents in Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection (SHC) describe the presence of African Americans in the South. But amidst the plantation records and inventories of enslaved individuals, one voice is too often absent: That of African American people themselves.

Chaitra Powell, the SHC’s African American Collections and Outreach Archivist, calls this the paradox of being “invisible in the archive.” It’s a status that she is working hard to remedy as the SHC goes forward.

Powell and her colleagues are fostering a new kind of historical record—one that reflects the experience of African American communities because members of those communities conceptualize and create it.

For an archivist like Powell, this means cultivating partnerships around the region, and making sure the communities she works with have the context and tools to collect and preserve their history.

“It’s everything from, ‘I’ve got this box in the attic,’ to ‘How can we structure a community archiving event?'” she says.

Powell says she loves being in the field where she can have the most impact. Her work has taken her from conversations with Kentucky miners, who wish to convey their experience as African Americans in Appalachian coal country, to meetings with mayors of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, who want to use local history to promote cultural tourism.

During a visit with high school students in the historically Black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, she guided the teens through an examination of the diaries and letters of town founders and, eventually, the creation of a genealogy database.

For the first time, she says, the students didn’t just passively listen to history. “They were active members in creating resources that interpret history.”

Enabling citizens to tell their own stories is a new model for academic archives, which have historically acquired documents and brought them back to a central location for long-term storage and use.

“Community archives are time-intensive, but the rewards are tremendous,” says Bryan Giemza, Director of the SHC. “Communities that are in control of their own history are more likely to be invested in preserving it and sharing materials that would otherwise remain hidden–and perhaps materials that community members never thought of as having broader interest.”

In some cases, those materials do eventually make their way to the shelves of the SHC. In other instances, archivists like Powell help communities establish a local archive with online records and scans that researchers and others can find and use.

Now an important challenge grant can help make the work that Powell is doing a permanent part of the SHC. The National Endowment for the Humanities has pledged $500,000 if the UNC Library can match that with $1.5 million raised over three years. The combined total of $2 million will be sufficient to create an endowment that will make the position of African American Collections and Outreach Archivist a permanent part of the SHC’s future.

Powell, whose continued work is dependent on the success of fulfilling the match, already has an agenda in mind for gathering those unknown histories. She is interested in developing community archives focused on African American spaces and places, family histories, churches and spirituality, historically Black colleges and universities and the visual and performing arts.

Knowing that the position of Outreach Archivist is supported by a permanent endowment would facilitate these efforts, not just by ensuring that Powell or her successor will always be there to do the work, but also by conveying UNC’s long-term commitment to preserving the real stories of these communities.

“It’s assuring communities and individuals that African American collections are a priority for the archives at UNC,” says Powell. “It’s a bold commitment for the University to make. As long as there is a library at UNC, African American collections will be at their center.”

Story by Judy Panitch. Video by Aleah Howell.