Thursday, February 27, 2014

Today in History: Black History Month

Post by Jayne Ptolemy, Reading Room Supervisor

Here at the Clements Library our collections continue to expand in new and exciting ways. With acquisitions and donations, established collections grow and new ones are formed. The manuscripts division acquires many individual letters and documents, which we incorporate into subject-specific collections. One letter that will soon be interfiled in the African American History Collection was penned by Paris Arthur Wallace (1870-1952), an African American man who would later become an A.M.E. Zion bishop. Paris Wallace graduated from Maryville College in Tennessee in 1895, and in late July of 1902, Wallace wrote to Samuel Ward Boardman whose family had connections to the College. Wallace updated Boardman on the other “Maryville College boys,” six other black recipients of bachelor’s degrees, and their successes in ministry, education, and government work. As an early example of integration at the college level, Wallace’s letter provides a lovely snapshot of the accomplishments that African Americans’ dedication and perseverance yielded from one institution’s cohort.

Paris Wallace’s letter does not stand alone in the Clements Library in testifying to the struggles and triumphs that black men and women faced as they pursued education in the nineteenth century. The Manuscripts Division has a number of collections that illustrate efforts to establish schools for freedmen and women following the Civil War. The Caroline F. Putnam Papers and the Louise Gilman Papers are two wonderful examples of white women’s work in such schools. While they reflect a racial and gendered perspective particular to the Northern white women who penned them, they also give glimpses of African American students and teachers striving in a tremendously difficult period to change their circumstances and the world around them.

In November of 1868, Caroline Putnam had begun teaching at the newly opened Holley School in Lottsburg, Virginia. When cold weather passed through the region, the roughly-finished building proved ill-equipped to handle the chill. “Winter swooped down on us yesterday, & for the first time I wondered how this school was going on so in frozen weather,” Putnam wrote on November 21, 1868. She noted “wind pouring in at every crack that shows the out door light,” but the thirty adult students attending school “sat patiently in their seats with numb fingers tracing out their names on the slates—How their feet must have ached with the cold!” After years of being refused access to education, cold would not deter these freedmen and women. Putnam captured the sentiments of Brother Downing who addressed a nighttime meeting, “I was looking out last evening, & said, (seeing it was going to rain), the children are coming home from school now- & then I thought how strange that did sound, for whenever before, any thing was said about school children it did not mean of our color.” The Caroline F. Putnam Papers help capture this watershed moment in Black history.

Similarly to Caroline Putnam, Louise Gilman also traveled to the South following the Civil War. She taught at the Hampton Institute in Virginia for several months in 1869 under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. While she had her own social prejudices like many white Americans in her age, Gilman provided rich descriptions of the freedman schools and commented on the physical danger surrounding black students and teachers during Reconstruction. In February 1869, she told how General Samuel C. Armstrong of the Freedman’s Bureau encountered several African American women “who were teaching in some country place where they met with opposition from the whites[.] Their school house was burned down last summer.” In the face of violence, however, the local African American community refused to yield. Instead, “They nailed their blackboard to an elm tree & kept on teaching till some time in December when the cold forced [them] to give up.” Black Virginians faced white retribution, but held fast to new educational opportunities.

Our Graphics Division compliments these manuscript descriptions of post-Civil War black education. One photo album features images of Hampton, Virginia, taken ca. 1891-ca. 1896. Along with pictures of the Hampton Institute’s academic buildings, there are photos of young African American children arranged in a circle, possibly in a schoolyard.

[School-age African American children], ca. 1891- ca. 1896. [Smith College. Hampton, VA, & Area], Photo album. William L. Clements Library.

Another album includes an image of an unidentified African American schoolroom taken ca. 1895.

[Interior of one-room African American school], ca. 1895. [Civil War Veteran’s tour of battlefields], Photo Album. William L. Clements Library.

We also have pictures taken around 1891 of the Boydton Academic and Bible Institute, open in Boydton, Virginia, from 1879 to 1935. Showing the buildings and some students, the pictures help bring the history alive. Some of the photos depict a “mock auction.” The story behind these photos is lost, but the images and the questions they raise remain. Depicting African American students “auctioning” each other off at a black school, including an attempt to examine one man’s teeth, the photos show smiling young men. With the experience of slavery still close at hand but the memories removed enough to allow space for jest, these images carry a dense history calling for further exploration.


[J. R. Hoffman], “Mock Auction, Boydton Institute” and “Frank Insists on Seeing His Teeth.” Albumen photoprints, 1891 April 16, Hoffman Collection. William L. Clements Library.

The incredible materials in the William L. Clements Library help us discover and unpack these complicated stories of the African American past. The courage and endurance necessary to overcome overt and subtle racism, to confront the legacies of slavery, and to forge forward as a community are all present in our holdings. Alongside the struggle also came a lot of joy, love, and laughter, and that, too, can be found in our collections. While the majority of our holdings pre-date 1900, we have four of Lt. John Edwards’ wonderful photo albums featuring images of Tuskegee Airmen. Serious students and accomplished servicemen, their pictures also show a lighter side as well. Images of the airmen laughing with family and friends, socializing together both in and out of uniform, highlight that special combination found in black history-- resistance to unjust restrictions accompanied by a celebration of the bonds that sustained the efforts.

Picture of a Tuskegee airman and the album that houses it. [John Edwards—Tuskegee Airman album, 1943-1952], Photo album. William L. Clements Library.
As Black History Month winds to a close, we extend an open invitation to researchers to come and continue the work of bringing these histories into greater clarity.

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