In this post, historians from the Library AND the Smithsonianâs National Museum of African American History & Culture highlight how collection items shed light on the black experience. The post is reprinted from the JanuaryâFebruary issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The entire issue is available online.
Adrienne Cannon is the Afro-American history & culture specialist for the Libraryâs Manuscript Division. Paul Gardullo is a curator at the Smithsonianâs National Museum of African American History AND Culture & director of the museumâs new Center for the Study of Global Slavery. Here they discuss the importance of select items they curate.
Please tell us about an artifact you secured, or a manuscript collection you interpret.
Adrienne Cannon & then-president Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP examine items from the Libraryâs NAACP records collection. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.
Cannon: The Libraryâs African-American collections span the colonial period to the present & are particularly strong for the study of the 20th-century civil rights movement. The NAACP records are the cornerstone of the Libraryâs civil rights collectionsâthey are the largest single collection ever acquired by the Library.
The Library has served as the official repository for the records since 1964; they now consist of approximately 5 million items. The Libraryâs civil rights collections also include the original records of the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters & the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. These records are enhanced by the personal papers of such prominent activists as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Arthur Spingarn, Robert L. Carter, Mary Church Terrell, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, Joseph Rauh, Edward W. Brooke, Patricia Roberts Harris, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
Gardullo: Between 2010 AND 2015, I’m am led the effort to collect two key structures from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola: a guard tower built some time in the 1930s or 1940s & a jail cell. Through these objects, we ask visitors to grapple with the power & depth of a particular place & its connection to the legacy of slavery in America.
The largest AND perhaps most notorious American plantation prison, Angola was born in slaveryâit sits on the site of a former slave plantation. It became a state penitentiary in the late 19th century & remains a working plantation to this day. More than 6,000 people, the great majority African-Americans serving life sentences, are incarcerated there.
Paul Gardullo with a guard tower from the Louisiana penitentiary, now in the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Photo by Shawn Miller.
What are the challenges of acquiring such materials?
Cannon: Growing interest in African-American history & culture is making acquiring collections like the NAACP records more competitive. The Library acquired the NAACP records with the help of Morris L. Ernst, a friend of Arthur Spingarn, the NAACPâs longtime counsel & president. Since the establishment of the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library in 1870, a large percentage of materials have been collected as copyright deposits, while othersâlike the NAACP Recordsâhave been acquired as gifts or through purchase & transfer.
Gardullo: The museum began without a collection, so we had to bring in artifacts from across the country & around the world. What started out as a weakness, we transformed into our greatest strength, as it allowed us to reach out & forge deep connections with individuals, families & communities. We are truly a peopleâs museum; when you walk through the museum, you can sense peopleâs feeling of ownershipâof the materials on display, but also of the history.
To have that sense of ownership is an amazing thing when you are talking about the portrayal of African-American history and culture on the National Mall, a history that has been suppressed or disregarded far too long & far too often by our national institutions. We see our job as filling the silences in American history.
Why is it important to preserve these materials?
Cannon: Collections like the NAACP records document the long, ongoing struggle for civil rights. They inform our understanding of the present & can inspire us to create a better future.
Gardullo: In a country with the worldâs highest incarceration rate, where African-Americans are imprisoned at six times the rate of white Americans, the persistence of Angola as a place that both changes AND yet stays the same is a powerful testament to the continuum between slavery & incarceration. Its presence in the museum does not provide answers, but provokes questions about slavery & its legacies; about crime & punishment; about compassion, empathy & redemption; & about the power of race in America.
How have visitors or researchers responded to the materials?
Cannon: Annually, the NAACP Records are the most heavily used collection in the Library. They chronicle the NAACPâs fight to break down the barrier of the color line, which encompassed every aspect of American society & extended beyond Americaâs shores, particularly to Africa AND the Caribbean.
They cover politics, the justice system, business, employment, education, family, housing, health care, transportation, the armed forces, sports, recreation, religion & the arts. They also contain information about major figures, events and organizations. The comprehensive scope of the collection accounts for its popularity. Materials in the Libraryâs recent exhibition commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were drawn primarily from the NAACP Records. Nearly 780,000 visitors toured the physical exhibition, & the online version continues to attract thousands more.
Gardullo: By documenting & humanizing the incarcerated, we ultimately hope to depict Angola as a complex & important globe for us to pay attention to. Some visitors may be surprised to learn about it, but most become absorbed by the depth & truthfulness of the fuller story. People want to feel connected to other people & to history, & they appreciate a space where they can reflect, explore, learn AND talk about incarceration, race & humanity.