Celebrating Black History Month: Hidden Gems

Yesterday we talked about some major projects, supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, documenting the contributions of African Americans to the American Story. While the history of Emancipation and the collected papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., are vital to understanding of our democracy, history, and culture, there are many other chapters:

The Oblate Sisters of Providence

The Oblate Sisters of Providence is the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. It was the work of a French-born Sulpician priest and four women, who were part of the Caribbean refugee colony which began arriving in Baltimore, Maryland in the late 18th century. The order founded the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States and is still educating children in Baltimore. A grant from the NHPRC helped the Oblate Sisters process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection of approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850s to 2003, including this touching image of orphans under their care.

Oblate Sisters of Providence
Early 20th century photograph from the St. Frances Academy School, courtesy Oblate Sisters of Providence

Lena Horne

Lena Horne (1917–2010) was an American singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist. In a recording preserved by Pacifica Radio Archives with NHPRC support, Horne discusses her life and career, civil rights, Billie Holiday, Joe Lewis, Humphrey Bogart, and other people in her life. You can listen at https://soundcloud.com/pacificaradioarchives/lena-horne-1966-interview

Lena Horne
Lena Horne publicity photo, c. 1950s

The Auburn Avenue Researcher Libraries

The Auburn Avenue Researcher Libraries in Atlanta received funds from the NHPRC to digitize and make Web-accessible eleven late 19th and mid-20th century manuscript collections that document the historical development of education for African Americans, primarily in the South, from the early 1860s to the early 1950s. One collection is the archives of Annie L. McPheeters, one of the first African American professional librarians in the Atlanta Public Library and an influential proponent of African American culture and history. Educated at Clark University in Atlanta, she earned a degree in English, with a minor in education in 1929. During the early part of her career, she served as city and county librarian at the Greenville Public Library, where she drove the bookmobile throughout the county’s rural areas, seeing first-hand the desire of many African Americans to learn and have access to books. In 1934 she took a job at the Auburn Branch of the Atlanta Public Library as an assistant librarian. She set out to remedy the branch’s problems of low library use by developing several initiatives, including the Adult Education Project, and launched the Negro History Collection. Two years later, she was promoted to full librarian, becoming one of the first African American professional librarians in the Atlanta Public Library. Her papers are housed in the Archives Division of the Auburn Avenue Research Library.

Grace Marilynn James, M.D.

Grace Marilynn James, M.D., (1923-1989) spent her life caring for the African American community of Louisville, Kentucky, who often had little access to regular health care. She was the first African American woman on the staff of Louisville Children’s Hospital and on the faculty at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and served as a role model and advocate for African Americans considering a career in medicine. The National Library of Medicine includes Dr. James in their special online exhibition “Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians.” The University of Louisville holds Dr. James’s papers, and they were processed through a grant from the NHPRC. A finding aid is available through the Kentucky Digital Library.

Dr. Grace James
Dr. Grace M. James, c. 1953, with a young patient. Photo courtesy David James, National Library of Medicine

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849 – 1908) was an African-American musical prodigy. Born into slavery, he began composing music at age five, and he was hired out at the age of eight years to concert promoter Perry Oliver, who toured him extensively in the US, performing as often as four times a day. He was called the “human mockingbird” and was said to be able to reproduce songs after hearing them a single time. During the 19th century, he was one of the best-known American performing pianists, performing at the White House for President Buchanan in 1860. Geneva Handy Southall began researching “Blind Tom” during her Ph.D. studies, and she later wrote three books: Blind Tom: the Post-Civil War Enslavement of a Black Musical Genius (1979), The Continuing Enslavement of Blind Tom: the Black Pianist-Composer (1983), and Blind Tom, the Black Pianist Composer: Continually Enslaved (1999). She spent more than 30 years researching Blind Tom’s life and music and also made the first recording of his music. She was inducted into the Black Musicians Hall of Fame in 1988 and was a former board member of the National Association of Negro Musicians. The NHPRC funded the preservation of Dr. Southall’s papers at Emory University. A documentary on “Blind Tom,” with contributions by Dr. Southall, is online at http://vimeo.com/56242237

Arabella Chapman

One of our favorite collections was truly hidden. The Arabella Chapman Project is a great example of how archives connect with the classroom to harness the power of the crowd and make historical records vibrant. It all started with an NHPRC grant to the Clements Library at the University of Michigan to create finding aids for over 1,600 “hidden” collections. Among the records were photograph albums which had originally belonged to Arabella Chapman (1859-1927), an African American woman from Albany, New York. The albums were assembled from 1878 to 1900 using portraits taken from the 1860s to the turn of the century. The photos include Arabella, her family, friends, and admirers, and copies of pictures of well-known public figures–including Lincoln, Douglass, and others.

Arabella Chapman
Arabella Chapman tintype, c. 1865. Clements Library, University of Michigan

During fall semester 2014, University of Michigan Professor Martha Jones’s African American Women’s History class embarked on a detailed examination of the albums to try to learn what they could about Arabella, her family and friends, and the role of photography in African American life in the late 19th century. Last spring, the students launched a website devoted to the Chapman albums. The Arabella Chapman Project includes scans of the album pages, genealogical information, maps, texts on the history of photograph albums, a portal for crowdsourcing more information, and more. They’ve published a series of questions and mysteries behind the images. And they’re using social media to reach out to a broader audience and to show how all black lives matter.

The Arabella Chapman Project is a fascinating approach to teaching history through historical records, and they are looking for your help. Recognize someone? Know something? Join the crowd in adding more layers to this piece of the American Story.

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