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Hidden Figures: Unearthing Black History in Museums and Archives
09 / 26 / 17 | By: Michelle Johnson
Museums and archives preserve and tell significant stories. They also serve their visitors, connecting people to their histories and providing an opportunity to hear otherwise unheard voices. Historically, both of these types of institutions were places of privilege, but today they serve increasingly diverse communities that demand inclusive narratives. As museums and archives work to reflect and serve their audiences, they embrace the challenge of unearthing hidden figures.
Black histories frequently grapple with narratives of people left out of the history books and whose legacies were not preserved in traditional archives. Although working with nontraditional collections and telling otherwise unknown stories requires more experience and creativity, including these lesser-known voices is essential.
In 2012, History Associates researched stories of the long Civil Rights Movement for the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. Unlike traditional “Montgomery to Memphis” accounts, the longer narrative provides a more complex, inclusive, and accurate interpretation.
Working with the award-winning multimedia studio, Second Story, the History Associates team creatively used nontraditional sources to convey how some Black neighborhoods have changed over time. The Legacy Table, an interactive interpreting the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, reveals narratives of “Victory,” “Hate,” and “Loss.” The “Loss” portion looks at change in Black communities during the 20th century, giving voice to people, businesses, streets, and lives that were physically, and often intellectually, lost to time.
Using the interactive table, visitors can learn more about places like Central Avenue in Los Angeles where the California Eagle Building, the former home of the Black-run California Eagle and the Liberator newspapers, stood. Once the center of Black business, jazz culture and a thriving Black middle class, Central Avenue changed over time and the building is now home to a corner convenience store in a predominantly Latino community.
History Associates documented this transformation visually with a photo from the University of Southern California Libraries Archive of the California Eagle circa 1941 and a photo of the modern bodega from an online blog. Viewed together, these photos convey a sense of change over time in terms of class, race, and culture. They depict physical changes, but also cultural shifts in the community as a whole.
Archives have been influenced by the same structures of power and privilege that affect every other institution in Western culture. Because of this, certain histories have been lost forever. But in some cases, historical evidence once deemed mundane and even unworthy of processing, can help recover the stories of people and communities previously thought to be lost.
At Cane River Creole National Historic Park in Louisiana, a National Park Service site, the archivists at History Associates processed and preserved documents from the Magnolia Plantation and more than 30 tenant quarters located on the land.
The tenant quarters had been home to a Black community from the antebellum period through the 1960s, but today have all but vanished along with the identities of their former occupants. Thanks to the team of archivists at History Associates, cultural resource specialist Dustin Fuqua was able to access and compile business records and maps to create the Magnolia Plantation Tenant Quarters Community story. Using receipts from installation of electricity, invoices, and store accounts cross-referenced with maps of the tenant quarters, Fuqua pieced together who lived where and when.
On September 24, 2016, President Obama spoke at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Summing up the importance of the Museum and Black history generally he said, “And so hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly, listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other […] see how our stories are bound together.” Over two million people have walked into the NMAAHC since that day.
Unearthing, preserving, processing and interpreting Black and other diverse histories is challenging. It often involves weeding through barely-processed records, conducting hundreds of oral histories or spending endless hours searching online. For museums and archives hoping to connect with their communities at a deeper level, diverse histories must be preserved, protected and shared. While some stories may be lost for good, many more can be uncovered with some careful attention and creative expertise.
For more information on the tenant quarters at the Cane River Creole National Historic Park, check out this blog post by History Associates Senior Archivist and Business Development Manager Laura Starr.