Black history month

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During my first year of teaching social studies at a public high school, a fellow teacher passed along to me a Newsweek article entitled “Why I Dread Black History Month.”  (NB: This article was originally written in 1994 by Wayne M. Joseph; interestingly, the version now available online from Newsweek lists “Newsweek Staff” in the by-line and has an updated date of 2010, though it varies none from the original printed version.)  Joseph referred to Black History Month as “a thriving monument to tokenism,” going on to argue that emphasizing its celebration during one month only serves to trivialize it and marginalize it from mainstream U.S. history.

By my third year of teaching, I got to teach United States History.  My training as a history major at Duke led me to believe that African American history should be woven into the fabric of U.S. history, not merely cast as standalone factoids that can be recited during the shortest month of the year.  For instance, I don’t think that Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War can be understood adequately without reflecting on the influence of efforts such as the Underground Railroad or individuals such as Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley.  Similarly, investigating the circumstances that forged the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson has to include references to the work of people such as John Hope Franklin, Ella Baker, John Lewis, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Fannie Lou Hamer as well as to organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Despite my genuine efforts to present African American history throughout the course, not just as a month-long sidelight, I always felt pressure — a little internal and some external — to make a “show” of Black History Month.  Don’t get me wrong; I do appreciate why this celebration was established by Carter G. Woodson in 1926.  What began as Negro History Week (it only gained a month in the 1970s) emerged in an era of a resuscitated Ku Klux Klan, rampant lynchings, a Jim Crow South, and the virtually wholesale disfranchisement of black voters.  I guess I just hoped that by the end of the twentieth century, we would have come far enough that things would no longer have to be viewed through a lens of race.  (But perhaps the shenanigans of Jesse Helms’ campaign in his 1990 re-election bid against Harvey Gantt should have disabused me of this notion.)  Cynthia Tucker best articulated my perspective in her 1998 editorial:

“Black History Month has served only to marginalize the accomplishments of African-Americans. . . .  It had not broadened an understanding of the ways in which black Americans have influenced American culture.  That will come only when black history is presented as it should be — day after day, week after week, month after month. . . .”

Tucker published an update to her thoughts last year, and she (as many others) questioned whether Barack Obama’s two-term presidency could serve to alter the landscape of what is considered mainstream history and culture and what is still relegated to a peripheral status.  Tucker concluded, “Black History Month places black history outside its context, separating it from the larger American story.”  Due to my early training as an historian and my recent training in the archival foundations of provenance and original order, I am struck by both the simplicity and the depth of this statement.

Archives can help us to understand the context in which things developed, whether they be Black History Month or the writings of Zora Neale Hurston.  (For reference, the papers of Carter G. Woodson are housed at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL); Hurston’s papers can be found at the University of Florida.  And kudos to the MARBL that their Romare Bearden exhibit lasted longer than the month of February!)  We just have to make sure that people are aware of these archival collections and their relevance to such questions.  While my perspective on Black History Month is clear, at the same time, as long as it is being celebrated, February seems an appropriate time for repositories to take advantage of the opportunity to highlight resources relevant to black history and culture.  For instance, the Stanford University Libraries had an event to celebrate Black History Month, and the Tennessee State Library and Archives re-released three important black history collections.  February should by no means be the only time that these collections are considered, but if people are especially looking for information during these 28 days, it behooves our repositories to give people what they want.

Presidential legacies


The Manse in Staunton

The Manse in Staunton

Presidential libraries pulled me into the world of archives and records management.  I have visited the exhibit side of two president’s libraries — Jimmy Carter and Abraham Lincoln.  And I had the opportunity to research at Woodrow Wilson’s library in Staunton, Virginia, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s library in Hyde Park, New York.  With a background in history, I have always loved learning new stories about our presidents, and in my studies at Duke, I was trained by historians who embrace the value of giving voice to the foot soldiers as well as the standard bearers, so I am predisposed to look at primary sources as mechanisms for discovering new layers of our historical record.

The presidential libraries are complicated as archival endeavors.  Before 1938, the papers of American presidents were seen as private property, so the presidents (or their families) were left with the decision of how to handle these records after the end of a presidency.  A few, such as John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes, deposited their papers in libraries.  Some, such as George Washington, died before they could carry out any plan, so their heirs were in a position to discard or sell the papers at their discretion.  Some papers fell victim to fires, such as those that destroyed the papers of Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage or John Tyler in Richmond.  A few former presidents like Calvin Coolidge chose to destroy at least some of their papers.

FDR Presidential Library

FDR Presidential Library

But FDR had a vision of working at his library after the end of his presidency, so he began the process in 1938 and in 1941 dedicated his library.  Of course, FDR would never see life after the presidency, as he died in office in 1945, but he did set an important precedent for his successors.  Jimmy Carter is arguably one of the most successful examples of combining his archive with a center for his post-presidency initiatives.

Under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, FDR’s predecessor as well as his four successors established libraries, with the presidents voluntarily agreeing to donate to the national government their papers as well as the land and building in which they would be housed and overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration.  In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which defined presidential records as those created or received by the president or his staff “in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.”

Two of the most significant debates currently surrounding the presidential libraries have to do with the level of access granted to the records and whether it is sustainable in the long-term to continue having separate libraries for each president (not to mention the hardships this system creates for researchers who must visit more than one library found in widely divergent locales).  Records in the presidential libraries are processed individually, in order to weigh issues of privacy and national security, which obviously adds time to their processing.  But because the Presidential Records Act declared presidential records public, this brings them under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), so the so-called PRA archives wind up having to organize their processing according to FOIA requests rather than proceeding in an orderly, series-by-series manner.  (For more information on FOIA, the Clinton Library has a web page that explains its applications to presidential records.)  The presidential library that has been most active in digitizing records for online access is the JFK Library.  And regarding the classification of documents that may limit their availability, President Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that has helped to simplify both the classification and declassification of government records.

As for creating separate repositories for each president, despite the complications and redundancies this system presents, I don’t see it changing any time soon.  The fundraising necessary to construct such edifices is easier when a president can tap his friends and supporters to contribute to the shaping of his legacy — which would not be the case with a combined repository.  Which brings up the the final issue regarding presidential libraries.  Because they serve as both repositories of records and museums of a presidency, there is an unusual balancing act that goes on.  (In fact, these two sides are separate in their management, with NARA operating the archive for the presidents from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush and private organizations operating the museums and facilities.)  Fine arts professor Benjamin Hufbauer has written a book about the presidential libraries entitled Presidential Temples (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), in which he argues that “the presidential library is a symptom of the striking expansion of presidential authority that has occurred during an era when the United States has become the most powerful country in the world” (3).  He goes on to suggest that they have become a part of our civil religion and ultimately concludes with an explanation of how these libraries help to shape our shared memory:

“Commemoration is an intercessor between death and societal memory.  As living memory of a president and first lady passes away, those who would commemorate them must help them make the transformation into the realms of history and societal memory, which is the object of the final campaign.  Presidential libraries try to create the sense that their subjects, if not immortal, are still relevant, and that visitors can acquire through a tourist experience living memory of the dead.  One of the most important goals of a presidential library, using documents, displays, audio, film, educational role-playing, and interactive video, is to transform presidential labor into myth, giving it seemingly transcendent value” (198).

Archivists have a predisposition to appreciate enduring value, given the groundwork provided by Theodore Schellenberg and his protégés.  So while I definitely support attempts to make the exhibits at presidential museums be as accurate as possible — such as the revisions to the Watergate exhibit after the Nixon Library came under the NARA umbrella — I think I’m comfortable with the grandiosity that accompanies presidential libraries, so long as public access to these records is preserved.

[For a more in-depth look at the issue of accessing records at the presidential libraries, you can read my paper here.]

Of preservation and restitution

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George Clooney has impeccable timing.  He wrote, directed, and stars in The Monuments Men, which was released on Friday.  This story of the museum curators and art historians who worked at the end of World War II to rescue artistic and historic monuments from destruction at the hands of the Nazis is being rendered on the big screen while there have been many news stories in the last months of caches of Nazi lootings that are still being uncovered.

First, for the backstory. When I visited Prague several years ago, I went to the Maisel Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter and learned that many of the artifacts in the collection had been brought from other parts of Europe to Prague during World War II because Hitler intended to create a “museum of an extinct race.”  While mind-boggling from a human perspective to consider how Hitler intended to mock the Jewish race, the archivist in me realized the provenance complications generated by these examples of war plunder.  Apparently after the war, there were some efforts to return these confiscated objects to their former communities, but these efforts were shut down by the communists in 1950.

Of course, the objects that wound up in Prague were not the only artistic works impacted by World War II.  This was part of a larger movement by the Nazis against what they called “degenerate art” — which more or less meant anything modern or that could be considered to have Jewish influence or that did not reinforce the Nazi ideals of racial purity.  In the end, the fact that the Nazis were impeccable records keepers turns out to our benefit.  Some of Hitler’s subordinates created photo albums of the works that were looted by German soldiers, with the apparent intention of facilitating Hitler’s choosing works to be in a museum in Linz.  (For more information on these albums, see the blog recently posted by David Ferriero to NARA’s web site.)

On June 23, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas; this commission (also known as the Roberts Commission due to the participation of Supreme Court justice Owen Roberts) then established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section under the Allied Armies.  Its members became known as the Monuments Men, although there were also women among the 345 people from thirteen different countries who served in this manner.  The Monuments Men Foundation provides more information about these people who served — many of whom extended their service long after the war ended.  NARA holds the records from the Roberts Commission.  The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library also has an interesting article on its web site about Fred Shipman, who was the first director of the FDR Library and took time away from that position to be one of the Monuments Men.

So now back to the present.  In February of last year, the Louvre announced that it was returning seven paintings to the surviving relatives of Jews who had these artworks taken from them in the 1930s.  Last fall, after a thorough investigation of the provenance of the art held in its museums, a Dutch commission reported 139 works suspected of being Nazi loot.  Within a week, German officials revealed a two-year investigation into the son of a Nazi-era art dealer that turned up over 1,400 pieces of art believed to have been lost or destroyed during World War II.

These are certainly not the first looted artworks to have been discovered.  In 1998, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art were written, pledging the identification and restitution of artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis.  In 2000, the North Carolina Museum of Art discovered that a painting in its collection, Madonna and Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach the Elder, had been part of a collection owned by Philipp von Gomperz, a Viennese Jew.  The museum restituted the painting to the nieces of von Gomperz, and they repaid this action by selling the painting back to the museum at a price well below its market value.  If only all such stories could end so amicably.

The multiplicity of recent examples related to artworks looted during World War II is what I contend might play to Clooney’s box office advantage.  But the fact that artworks looted by the Nazis are still being discovered nearly seventy years after the end of World War II is frankly appalling.  None of this speaks well to the record keeping of the museums and archives that have held unacknowledged Nazi-looted materials.  (Of course, I am hopeful these have just been examples of poor record keeping rather than something much more morally reprehensible.)

So to end where I began, with the Monuments Men: although it may never emerge from committee, in December of 2013, Senator Blunt of Missouri introduced a bill (S. 1862) recommending that the Congressional Gold Medal be awarded to the Monuments Men.  I can’t bestow on them any medals, but I can say that learning more of their story has stirred my archivist pride.  Now may we finish the work that they began.

P.S.  A few days later, the news reported that an additional 60 pieces were found inside Cornelius Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg, Austria, and seized on Monday — including works by Renoir, Manet, Picasso, and Monet.

P.P.S. In May, the last known photo album of Nazi stolen art was donated to the National Archives.

Super Bowl Sunday

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Every year, this Sunday brings to many Americans’ minds three things: football, advertisements, and eating.  Here’s my archival twist on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, includes the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center.  It holds more than 20 million document pages, 3 million photographic images, and numerous artifacts.

A notable archival collection of advertisements is housed by the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History in the David M. Rubinstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University.  They created a digital collection called Ad*Access, which includes over 7,000 images from the J. Walter Thompson Company Competitive Advertisements Collection and focuses on five main subject areas: Radio, Television, Transportation, Beauty and Hygiene, and World War II.  These ads originally appeared in American and Canadian newspapers and magazines between 1911 and 1955.  (And if you happened to miss any of the Super Bowl ads during the game, they are available at the site.)

There are many ways that archives have demonstrated an interest in food.  In 2011, NARA opened a fascinating exhibition entitled What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? that investigated the impact of the US government on American eating.  (The previews of this exhibition are still available online.)  The presidential libraries are often queried about recipes in their collections; for example, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library has an FAQ for Lady Bird Johnson’s recipe for Pedernales River Chili.  The Library of Congress has developed a resource guide on Presidential Food.  In 2012, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened an exhibition about Julia Child’s kitchen.  And although it’s not an archive in a traditional sense, I learned about the Southern Foodways Alliance during Cliff Kuhn’s plenary speech at the Tri-State Archivists Conference last fall, and I’ve been impressed to learn about the oral histories and short documentary films that they collect in order to preserve the food traditions of the South.  Plus it’s hard not to appreciate an organization that calls its podcasts okracasts!