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 Archive.org). 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.

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