Constructing an Archive (part III, OJ)

I’ve been thinking about this time spent at the Tuskegee University Archives mostly in relation to a lecture I delivered to a colleague’s class in early December. First, a quick backstory on that talk. While watching the ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America” this summer, I was floored by the way that the producers and writers were able to tie the Simpson case to a longer history of race, celebrity, and (in)justice. I saw a depth to the case and to Simpson’s biography that I had not been made aware of before. My colleague (a brilliant historian named Mary, who is also my dearest of friends) wisely made the criminal case the center of one of her classes for her US history course. Knowing my shared interest in Simpson, she invited me to give the lecture.

When I was preparing for this talk, I was fixated on a USA Today piece Mary had selected for the class reading. This document was a collection of reactions (both positive and negative) to the verdict. One line in particular stands out. Upon hearing that Simpson had been acquitted, a respondent from Connecticut declared: “We are not a society of justice any longer. I’m truly ashamed of our justice system. It does not work. This is not a good day to be an American.” Those familiar with the case (or the FX show) know that Simpson’s trial had become a referendum on issues he had previously chosen to ignore. Instead of focusing on the victims in the case, the defense and media put more attention on police brutality and the systematic injustices that disproportionately affect/ed black men. When I read this particular passage, I was immediately struck by the fact that this person imagined America as a place that had always been just. Reflecting further, I could not help but connect this excerpted statement statement to this brilliant piece by Vann R. Newkirk II.  Recalling a childhood run-in with a man he calls “Mr. Confederate Flag,” Newkirk remembers his father telling him, “This is who we are.” What Newkirk’s father was telling him–maybe even urging him to see–was that acts of hate were not anomalous in this country. He was also suggesting that extrajudicial acts by whites (for which there may not be any consequences) might continue to be the norm. This was the world of justice that Simpson’s lawyers were battling in, though they had the decided advantage of playing on Simpson’s wealth and celebrity. More recently, in the wake of this most recent election, Newkirk reflected, “This is who we are. Those words often come to me when I see the ugly things in life now.” Whatever you make of Simpson himself, the crime committed in his former wife’s home was absolutely “ugly”–so, too, were the thousands of crimes committed by others with the privilege to skirt the consequences.

The struggle to tell the truth about the past–and the sometimes “ugly” aspects that make Americans “who we are,” may not seem to have much to do with OJ Simpson. Just like in the early 1990s, however, we are living in a moment when there is tremendous, overwhelming evidence of social injustice. Who could miss the parallels between the filming of the Rodney King incident and the many (too many) videos of untimely deaths that have flashed our screens this year? Here’s my hypothesis. I would suggest that it is sometimes easier, or simply more manageable, for people to focus their energy on a single extraordinary case–take OJ Simpson in 1994 or the fascination with Adnan Syed in 2015–than to ask people to weigh the totality of the criminal justice system. Pushing further, I’d like to consider why Simpson is having “a moment” again. Why, in 2016, do we want to learn more about a man whose wealth allowed him to essentially buy his way out of the justice system? What does Simpson’s story have to teach us in the midst of #blacklivesmatter? Maybe we have been craving a story like this because we would rather see an outrageous (or shocking) outcome as an exception than talk about the obvious patterns that Work and others had to strive so hard to document.

Simpson’s story lies somewhere on a spectrum between distraction and parable. Maybe it is best described as an oracle. Perhaps it will emerge as something that tells us “who we are” and gives us pause when we refuse to see the obvious, refuse to listen to the evidence put forth by Worth and others. If you haven’t already…watch “OJ: Made in America” for yourself. Let me know what you think. Build your own archive.

Constructing an Archive (part II)

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about one archive in particular. Just over two years ago, I spent a week in Tuskegee, Alabama doing work in the Tuskegee University Archives. This was a trip I embarked upon for my dissertation research. My primary objective (at the onset) was to learn more about the Home Economics faculty and the evolution of the collegiate program there.

As with other institutions, the field of Home Economics at Tuskegee did not exist in isolation. This is partly due to the enormous influence of George Washington Carver (of peanut butter fame, for most people). Among other things, Carver was heavily involved in the teaching of Nutrition and therefore, he and his peers also had a role in shaping the field of Home Economics at Tuskegee. During my visit, I had the opportunity to leave my work at one point to join the lead archivist in seeing one of Carver’s recently discovered notebooks. I mention this because it was a rare and unexpected archival thrill. I also bring it up because I learned so much from this particular archivist, a former archaeologist named Dana who had a great passion for Tuskegee. If I had to guess, I would presume that a key reason for Dana’s pride was the lineage he was part of as the head of the archives. By taking on this role, Dana was standing on the shoulders of giants, including Monroe Nathan Work.

Work  was a sociologist, archivist, and activist for many years at Tuskegee. Before moving to Alabama, Work studied at the Rockefeller-funded University of Chicago. There, he learned the tools and methods he would need to painstakingly document crime statistics. Prior to that, Work had also studied theology. But he ultimately decided to be a caretaker of facts, to minister to the people from behind the files he so carefully collected.

In relation to his tenure at Tuskegee, Work is best known for starting the Department of Records and Research. While in this role, Work created the Negro Year Book, a critically important source of information about African American life (you can find the text on Hathi Trust or While at Tuskegee, I read through some of these records on the Year Book. I also walked the brick paths of the campus, visited Booker T. Washington’s study, and felt the warmth of the sweltering sun as I drove miles and miles away from the nearest city into this rural, and still isolated campus. Of all the snapshots I can conjure when I think of this trip, there is something that looms even larger, and it is an overwhelming feeling. It is the feeling I had when I learned the true significance of Work’s archival holdings.

While situated deep in the Jim Crow South, Work kept records on lynchings. He kept rope that families sent to him. He kept letters, files, and most of all, he kept newspaper clippings. Hundreds, upon hundreds of scraps of paper and print, all tied together into a single, awful narrative. Work kept this evidence so that no one could deny that these acts had occurred. I think of Work because of the courage of conviction he must have had to maintain the particular type of crime statistics that he kept at Tuskegee. I think of him because he is proof that history matters.

Dana had told me at the start of my visit that the lynching records drew a considerable number of visitors each year. Without whispering, and without pause, he noted that they needed to see these files for themselves–to know, with some certainty, that this evidence existed somewhere. Maybe they just needed to see that within the walls built by the students of Tuskegee, and within the boxes carefully curated by Work, there would be some trace of truth.

Constructing an Archive (part I)

Over the past few years, much of what I have learned about the past has not come directly from manuscripts or printed pages kept within the neatly ordered files of archive boxes. While documentary evidence is critical, I think historians do not talk often enough about the transformative power of being truly attentive on an archival trip. Cultural historians suggest that we should all be interested in the construction of the archive. Yet few, by my assessment, are truly interested in the literal ways that these places come to exist on the campuses and landscapes in which they work. For me, I think being a publicly oriented historian has made a difference.

A great deal of my dissertation work was grounded in institutional records related to higher education, so I spent a considerable amount of time on various college campuses. While visiting these types of archives, I found myself wanting to know who the walkway, the cafeteria, and library had been named after. I started studying campus maps as if they were more than visitors’ guides, as if they held a decipherable key for what had been valued by the institution. But I also wanted to know what wasn’t there on campus, to discover which histories had long been erased or disregarded. In time, I started to carefully track the patterns that were emerging as I went from place to place. For example, I wanted to know where, and why, those who taught Home Economics were remembered on university and college campuses. I found that most of these women were often reduced to a single plaque on a cafe, even on campuses where this field used to be a dominant, respected mode of study. I looked for answers in the archives, and clues all around me. What I learned is that only telling the stories carefully preserved in acid-free boxes meant missing a major piece of these educators’ histories.

Perhaps most notably, I became increasingly attuned to these smaller details when I was doing research at HBCUs. I would put forth that these are places where every brick is heavier with the weight of history. After all, it was the students and early teachers who usually built these institutions–intellectually and physically. To put a finer point on it, freedmen and freedwomen who wanted to learn often had to work to bring their own classrooms into being. These were (and are) places of resistance, enclaves that challenged the Jim Crow logic of the rest of the nation. But these students’ names cannot be found on most buildings or really anywhere on a map–and this is where having a total archival experience is important. If one were to look only at the names preserved externally on most campuses, one might think that the Carnegies and Rockefellers were doing the building, not just writing checks. That their names dominate is not entirely surprising; naming is power, and building or funding an archive is perhaps the greatest power stroke of all. So, perhaps our greatest challenge today is reconciling the fact that some of our richest opportunities for social history come from within campuses where institutions are so clearly marked only with the names of an elite power structure.


Keeping Up with the Joneses

I grew up in a small, rural town in Kent County, Rhode Island. Though I can only vaguely recall having a “rural route” address, I vividly remember finding horseshoes buried in the rocky soil of our backyard. More than just found objects, these rusted, clunky pieces of the past were like tethers to a world of farming and farmers that had since largely disappeared.

 Looking back, the town’s rural roots seemed best preserved in the names embedded in the landscape. Most of our roads, our town library (a truly tiny place, but a whole world to me) and our schools bore the names of the few families who had divided the land. A couple that immediately come to mind are the Louttits and the Linehams–but then there is a full name that is so etched into my brain: W. Alton Jones.

 I can admit that I never gave much thought to this name, or to Jones–assuming, as I’m sure most did, that he was one of the many farmers who once lived in West Greenwich. I also had not really thought about how a satellite campus for RI’s land-grant institution, the University of Rhode Island, came to bear his name just down the street from the house I was raised in.

Today, I learned more about Jones. A colleague casually mentioned that President Eisenhower would visit his home in RI as a kind of alternative to “Camp David.” I had known that Eisenhower enjoyed visits to Newport, RI, especially to the large and inviting yellow 19c home (“Quarters Number One”) that is now part of Fort Adams State Park. But apparently Eisenhower also enjoyed Jones’s rural retreat, a place where he could enjoy fishing and the solitude of being far from the pressures of a Cold War presidency.

 So, what brought Jones to RI? Jones, who hailed from Missouri, was an oil executive (tycoon?). As president of Cities Service Co., Jones is perhaps best known for the “Big Inch and Little Inch” pipeline projects. An incredibly wealthy man, at various points Jones had property in New York (Lake Placid and Manhattan), Maryland, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana. Clearly, Jones also owned an estate in West Greenwich, which would later be granted to URI.

 Generally, I pride myself in knowing local history. This made me wonder: wouldn’t a public historian know if a camp located basically in her backyard had also been host to presidential visits? Not necessarily. After all, Jones did not have the same kind of deep roots as other local families; unlike those who endow schools or libraries, there are not many reasons to remind locals of this fleeting resident. And perhaps the very vagueness of his name has allowed most local residents to presume he must be part of some other lineage.

 As I file this information away, I wonder what, if anything, it changes about my memories of this town and my own time in the woods. I weigh my memories of the smells of the babbling brook in our yard, the sound of a log  cracking under the swing of an ax, and the way that light would curve through the bend of the stone walls stretching into the woods, seemingly forever. These snapshots are what I knew, and what I know. And now–I know something more.


eisenhower2 Image: URI Digital Commons – “George Wheatley, the caretaker of Hianloland Farm from 1951 to ca.1963, guides President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mr. W. Alton Jones in a fishing skiff during a 1958 visit to the West Greenwich estate.”