Black re-renaissance

Setting out to discover why Chicago’s African American literary scene—once the rival of Harlem—wasn’t getting its scholarly due, English professor Jacqueline Goldsby launched an archiving movement.

By Sarah Miller-Davenport, AM’08
Photography by Dan Dry

Chicago Public Library archivist Michael Flug works with Goldsby and graduate students like Traci Parker to catalog materials from the Harsh Collection’s huge repository.

Digging through the archives at a Chicago city library six years ago, Jacqueline Goldsby was struck, not for the first time, by the gap between the history that happens and the history that gets written. An associate professor of English, Goldsby was researching a book on the black literary scene of the 1940s and 1950s, a period, she argues, when “Chicago rivaled Harlem in importance.” Chicago had been a hub of 20th-century African American life, home to the nation’s largest black-owned media network—publications such as the Chicago Defender, Ebony, and Jet—and black writers and artists, including Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Muddy Waters. Yet the scholarly work on this cultural movement is relatively scarce. Although researchers have mined the archives in New York City and at Yale to create a vast account of the Harlem Renaissance, they have virtually ignored Chicago. Goldsby wondered why.

The problem, she realized, was access to knowledge. There simply weren’t enough archives on black Chicago. “It really was a kind of lightbulb moment,” says Goldsby, who did her graduate training in American studies. Although she had the time to sift through the archival collections that did exist on mid-century black Chicago, many of which are located at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature in a South Side public library, researchers from elsewhere were at a disadvantage. So much of the material at the Harsh and at other city repositories was not cataloged that it dissuaded visiting scholars with scarce time and tight budgets from pursuing work on black Chicago. By contrast, the Harlem Renaissance archives are more extensively documented.

Goldsby hoped to ignite a similar drive to document what she has called the Chicago Renaissance. Talking with Michael Flug, Harsh Collection senior archivist, she realized the scale of the challenge—and of the opportunity. Flug himself was a deep source of information on both the Harsh Collection and the wider history of black Chicago, but the Harsh, like many archives, lacked the staff to keep the collection organized. “So much of that knowledge and history,” Goldsby says, “was in his head.”

Archiving old photos and papers is the first step toward historical narrative.

Processing a collection requires an archivist to organize its contents into folders and create a finding aid that describes what each folder contains. Like any such repository, the Harsh’s backroom shelves overflowed with collections waiting to be sorted. Some were still in cardboard boxes, bearing the battle scars of years spent in garages and basements, left vulnerable to water damage and foraging squirrels. There were countless stories buried in those boxes, Goldsby knew, and undoubtedly more than a few historical revelations.

 The time-consuming and tedious job of combing through the fading photographs and crumbling papers that chronicle a life or a movement is the first step in piecing together a historical narrative. Yet archival repositories are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Goldsby came to Flug with a proposal: she would bring in doctoral students as archivists, matching their research interests to collections that needed processing. Flug jumped at the chance. “The whole package,” Flug says, “was unique.”

Beginning in 2004 with a $5,000 seed grant from the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, Goldsby’s project, called Mapping the Stacks: A Guide to Black Chicago’s Hidden Archives, now includes seven staff members—University graduate students in history, English, and cinema and media studies—and has gained recognition within scholarly communities. The Humanities Division now gives the project $19,000 a year, and since 2007 it has received nearly $200,000 in funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where Mapping the Stacks is seen as a model grantee in an initiative to catalog hidden, unprocessed archives.

The staffers have fully processed a dozen collections on black Chicago and are at work on a dozen more. The most well known includes the personal papers of the publishing family behind the weekly Chicago Defender, long the nation’s most vital source on African American news. Both Flug and Goldsby credit much of the project’s success to its graduate-student staff, who undertake intensive training by University library archivists before they begin, learning how to handle fragile documents and the more substantive work of creating a finding aid. Flug says the graduate students “have a real grasp of how to arrange material. They immediately see the historical significance.”

Marcia Walker, a staff member and fourth-year history PhD student, agrees that her history background has been vital. “So many of the collections that we process with Mapping the Stacks require a deep understanding of 20th-century historical developments, urban history, and black life,” she says. At the same time, the archiving experience has sharpened her approach to her own dissertation on black women’s activism—a project that relies heavily on the papers of labor leader Addie Wyatt, which Walker is currently processing.

For Celeste Moore, a history graduate student who studies American jazz musicians in post–World War II France, the archive work has changed her understanding of how history can be written. While processing a series of interviews that musician and author Charles Walton recorded with Chicago jazz artists, Moore became enamored of Walton’s wide-ranging style. “He interrogated the entire infrastructure of jazz in Chicago,” she says. “The economic and race relations, the significance of places and institutions, and the interactions between musicians, bookers, club owners, and the musicians’s unions.”

Goldsby views Mapping the Stacks as a model not only for demonstrating how academics and archivists might work together but also for how universities might forge partnerships with local communities. In addition to their work at the Harsh Collection, project staff have also worked at South Side institutions such as the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Chicago Defender offices, and the South Side Community Arts Center (SSCAC), where much of the archival processing was done in the kitchen. Goldsby, with assistance from the University library staff, also secured outside funding, some of which she put toward restoring and digitizing SSCAC photographic scrapbooks chronicling center exhibits and events since 1938. By supporting such institutions, the project, Goldsby believes, furthers the University’s wider goal to improve relations with the South Side. “What intrigues and excites people in the community,” she says, “is that professors and graduate students at Chicago are taking African American history seriously.”

There is more work to do. It pains Goldsby to think about the historically significant materials languishing in attics. Through a word-of-mouth campaign encouraging people to donate their families’ papers for public archival use—an offshoot of the main project—she wants Mapping the Stacks to “stir a kind of imagination, to get people to think about how they might be record creators themselves.” By asking residents to revisit their own histories, she hopes to foster a larger historical consciousness. “The things that people save can point to historical cultural practices that go beyond one family.”

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