Supporting Public Access to Historical Records

Twice each year, I have the delightful task of giving grants to projects across the country to make access to historical records happen. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which I chair, funds archivists, records managers, and documentary editors to preserve and make public collections vital to our cultural heritage.

At the end of November, we met virtually to decide upon 36 grants totaling nearly $3 million for projects in 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Nineteen of those grants went to our partners at the state historical records advisory boards. In turn, those boards will go on to fund dozens of projects at the local level, mostly in small and underserved communities. They also support workshops for archivists, both professional and amateur, as well as traveling archivists, National History Day competitions, emergency preparedness, and much more. We were also excited to support the UPLINK collaborative, which will enhance the capacity of archives throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Through our Publishing Historical Records program, we funded 10 documentary editing projects. In addition to ongoing projects to publish the papers of John Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Mitchell, Jr.,  and the correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, we are providing seed money to a digital project on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky, the history of Ratification of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the transcription of secret White House tapes through the Presidential Recordings project.

Three new projects, also conceived as digital projects, will receive their very first NHPRC grant:

  • The Papers of Julian Bond, 20th century Civil Rights icon
  • The Complete Correspondence of Charles W. Chesnutt, African American writer and voting rights activist
  • Slavery, Law, and Power: Struggles over Justice and Democracy in the Anglo-Atlantic World, a collection of documents from the UK, Europe, and Barbados tracing slavery laws in the Americas

Title page from The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories written by Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in 1899.

And at the November meeting, the Commission discussed a new effort to provide seed money to a new generation of projects focused on the records of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

A few years ago, we introduced our Major Initiatives program, which was designed to fund large-scale undertakings. 

  • Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corporation was awarded $349,839 to support a project, in collaboration with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. to digitize and make available online 2,709 hours of radio broadcasts from public radio station WIPR, and make available an additional 5,000 hours of already-digitized broadcasts, dating since 1949. The project will also make available Spanish and English transcripts of the broadcasts, and encourage the public to participate in correcting the Spanish transcriptions.

  • In New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America was awarded $150,000 to digitize and make available 150 oral histories drawn from 11 oral history collections: Waves of Identity, 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, Chino-Latino interviews, Performing Chinese America, 9/11 Chinatown documentation, tales of gentrification in Chinatown, Chinese Americans designers, stories of Chinese Americans food and identity and the Chinese American Diaspora.

  • Court records from the Territorial Era (1853-1889) will be digitized and published online through a $90,000 grant to the Washington State Archives. Covering the territory’s eastern division civil, criminal, probate, admiralty, and equity cases, the records represent all sectors of society in Eastern Washington from prominent citizens to lesser-known residents, on subjects as broad as divorce, vigilante justice, and public petitions. After publication, the project will make the records available for citizen archivists to transcribe via the Scribe application.

  • A grant of $194,938 is supporting a collaborative among Johnson C. Smith College; Special Collections at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Duke University’s Digital Humanities Lab to create an online exhibit on the effects of urban renewal in African American neighborhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina. The partners will digitize and provide contextualization of documents and other records in an augmented reality digital environment. The project aims to trace the impact of urban renewal strategies that resulted in “lost” communities. Users will learn about segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, the Fair Housing Act, Black entrepreneurship, social and voluntary club life, leadership, Black families and institutions. 

Brown Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Charlotte, 1958, courtesy J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC, Charlotte.

  • The Ohio Historical Society will be awarded $107,058 to reprocess and catalog the 226 linear feet of the Warren G. Harding Papers and provide a comprehensive finding aid. The papers document the life (1865-1923) of the 29th President of the United States, from his years in the newspaper business, time in the Senate, the 1920 presidential campaign, and his presidency (1921-23). They include papers of his wife, Florence Harding.  

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Finally, we had a project that bears special mention. Willamette University in Salem, Oregon will process the papers of Oregon’s long-serving statesman, U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR, 1967-1997). We have come full circle in a way, for Senator Hatfield was a stalwart supporter of the National Archives, championing its independence.

In 1934 Congress had established the National Archives as an independent agency , but fifteen years later it was transferred to the newly established General Services Administration, which made for a pair of strange federal bedfellows. After years of attempts to unknot the two agencies, both houses of Congress passed a bill for independence in the fall of 1984 and went to President Ronald Reagan for his signature.

President Reagan was not completely sold on the bill, but Senator Hatfield rode in to the rescue. In a meeting with Edwin Meese, special counsel to the President, he promised to support the President’s fiscal agenda if, in exchange, the President would back the National Archives independence bill. President Reagan signed the bill into law on October 19, 1984, as Public Law 98-497. And why was Senator Hatfield so interested in the fate of the National Archives? Perhaps, in part, because of his tenure, beginning in 1983, as a member of the Commission. He must have been impressed by the record of our small, but catalytic, grants program which supports an astonishing richness of public access to historical records.

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