The Game Is Changing for Historians of Black America

tags: African American history, primary sources

WILLIAM STURKEY is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White.

I first saw the photo at a street fair in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in October 2011. I was at the Historic Mobile Street Renaissance Festival, an annual celebration of Hattiesburg’s Black downtown. That afternoon, Mobile Street filled with thousands of people spending their Saturday in the sun, drinking sweet tea and eating soul food with their friends and neighbors. I was new in town, and I was excited to join them.

Sitting in the window of an abandoned shop was a black-and-white picture of 12 Black men. They appear in two rows, five seated and seven standing. Each man is wearing a suit and politely holding his hat off to the side. There are at least two generations present, as evidenced by their hairlines and facial features. Their faces carry mixed expressions. Most of them look serious, but some are smiling. One man even appears to be smirking, like he knows a secret. In their regal suits and poses, their faces are frozen in time. As the crowd meandered by, these men from the past sat perched in their window, hardly noticed by a soul. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching us. The men in the photograph haunted me.

Just two months before, I had arrived in Hattiesburg to teach at a local university and finish my doctoral dissertation. I was writing about the local Black community and its role in the civil-rights movement, but I had a problem: I was struggling to find sources that detailed the lives of local African Americans before the 1960s. So when the historic Black community held a festival in honor of itself, I went. I wanted to meet those who had come of age in that neighborhood during the Jim Crow era and borne witness to the birth of the local movement. But then I was struck by the picture in the window, and everything changed. The encounter altered the trajectory of my project, which years later culminated in the publication of my book Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White. But more than that, the search led me to tools that could revolutionize the telling of Black history.

Name any famous figure from the civil-rights movement and it’s likely that they spent time in Hattiesburg: John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others organized in the city. I was particularly drawn to the story of Hattiesburg’s Freedom Schools, which opened just days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. The following Monday, local Black churches welcomed hundreds of students into makeshift summertime Freedom Schools designed to fold Black youths into the movement. The Black students arrived by the dozens, singing and clapping, determined to claim freedom and their rightful place in American society. One 11-year-old girl later explained that she came because “I want to become a part of history … And I want to be a first-class citizen.” That hope is what drew me to Hattiesburg. I wanted to study the community that birthed such a powerful movement. But the path before me, as it has been for many historians of Black America, was daunting.

To research and write the stories of Black and white southerners is to undertake almost two entirely different tasks. Black artifacts and records have long been systematically destroyed and marginalized. Like water fountains and public schools, the creation of historical archives was once racially segregated. Archives are usually supported by state governments or private institutions and include a wide range of personal, organizational, and government documents. Extant collections typically reflect the prejudice of past white southern archivists who didn’t believe that the Black people who shared their society lived lives worth studying. When white archivists set out to collect documents they thought future historians would find most important, they often gathered only the photographs, ledgers, diaries, and letters produced by wealthy, white citizens. Most of these archivists didn’t think someone might someday want to study the lives of African Americans. Their racism prevented them from imagining that someone like me could ever exist.


Read entire article at The Atlantic

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