Archiving While Black

Historians in the News
tags: John Hope Franklin

Ashley Farmer is an assistant professor of history and African and African-diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. A version of this essay originally appeared on Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Among the things 2018 will be remembered for is mainstream culture’s realization that white Americans use the police to challenge black entry into "white" spaces. Countless viral news stories detail how white people have called the police on black people for cooking, shopping, driving — basically for existing while black. A black body in a space presumed to be white is at best out of place and at worst a threat. This reality extends to less visible spaces, such as the historical archive. The archive, and black marginalization within it, has important implications for both scholarly and popular ideas about history.

The experience of archiving while black was perhaps best captured by the famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin. A native of Oklahoma who came of age during Jim Crow, Franklin experienced a series of formative racist incidents that led him to pursue a career in history. In his 1963 essay "The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar," he described his efforts to view collections at an archive in North Carolina. Franklin recalled:

My arrival created a panic and emergency among the administrators that was, itself, an incident of historic proportions. The archivist frankly informed me that I was the first Negro who had sought to use the facilities there; and as the architect who designed the building had not anticipated such a situation, my use of the manuscripts and other materials would have to be postponed for several days, during which time one of the exhibition rooms would be converted to a reading room for me.

It was never assumed that a black person would, in Franklin’s words, have "the capacity to use the materials there." This issue of capacity was an index of the racist ideas at the time. At the core of this claim, and the alarm over his physical presence in the archive, was the fact that neither architect or archivist had conceived of black people as intellectuals who would inhabit such scholarly spaces.

Propelled by these experiences, Franklin made it his goal to "weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly." He became one of the foremost historians of black history, producing seminal texts such as From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947) and educating a new generation of historians at institutions such as Fisk University, the University of Chicago, and Howard University.

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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