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.


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