Very often when reading old letters, it’s easy to lose a large part of the writer’s meaning, even when the penmanship is perfect and the grammar impeccable. Being far removed from the writer’s time and place, we lose a great deal of the context, of the experiences and culture shared by the correspondents, and may, in our ignorance, overlook accounts of significant events. The C. L. Porcher Letter (Ms1988-072) relates an event in Black history–albeit from the perspective of a white woman–but that aspect of the letter could easily be missed without a careful reading of its contents.
A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Clelia Lightwood Porcher was living and working as a teacher in that city when she sat down to write a letter on September 12, 1876. After briefly discussing a family matter, Porcher remarks that “Isaac was summoned and was out until after one, but Sunday + Monday night the rain was so steady that no disturbance was even looked for …” (“Isaac” was probably Isaac Mazyak, or Mazyck, who appears in the 1880 census as a 24-year-old clerk, boarding in the Porcher home.) Later, Porcher adds that “[t]he Mayor’s and Governor’s proclamation has only had the effect of making them more determined than they were before.” She continues by noting that the city is well protected and the danger likely over, then describes a large meeting of women at the Confederate Home, held for the purpose of organizing refreshments for men serving guard duty throughout the city. (She’s not optimistic about the women’s organization, however: “We were there three blessed hours and came away as wise as I went about what was to be done.”) Porcher also expresses her feelings about the mood in the city: “I have never been so excited in my life before + every body can think and talk of nothing else … We hear the slightest unusual sound during the night, so as you may imagine our sleep is not very profound.” But the following day, Porcher reports that the unrest has been quelled: “[I]t is thought that everything now will be quiet, the only thing is, our men cannot relax their vigilance.”
All of this hints at some civil disturbance experienced in Charleston, but what was it? Who were the “them” to whom Porcher refers? Why were they “more determined” after hearing the mayor’s and governor’s proclamations? A few online searches reveal that Porcher’s letter relates to politics and race relations in Charleston near the end of Reconstruction.
Early in September 1876, Charleston saw two Democratic Party meetings in which several local Black residents spoke about their reasons for abandoning the Republican Party. In a Black Democratic Party club meeting held on King Street on September 6, two Black speakers spoke against the Republican Party. Afterward white Democrats escorted the speakers through a crowd of Republicans that had gathered outside the Democratic meeting. Violence between the two groups ensued, and the intervention of federal troops and an integrated local police force was of little consequence. (Not on hand that first night were the city’s many “rifle clubs”–essentially local militia–which were the clubs to which Porcher refers.) Windows were smashed, stores were looted, a number of people were assaulted, and one white man was accidentally killed.
That Porcher’s letter was written six days after the incident suggests that the unrest continued for some time. In response to the violence, Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain issued a proclamation promising to “secure to every man, of whatever political party, the right to speak, act and vote freely and safely …” Neglecting to state what actions he would take to restore order, Chamberlain called on all citizens to do their utmost in preserving the peace: “The spirit of poiltical intolerance, in all its forms,” he wrote, “is the direst curse which now oppresses our State, and peace and prosperity will never come until that foul spirit is finally exorcised.” Despite his lofty ideals, Chamberlain was seen as ineffective in suppressing the violence. A lack of voter confidence in his ability to quell the violence, coupled with suppression of Black voters and the defection of others to the Republican Party, led to Chamberlain’s defeat in November.
The feelings aroused that fall in Charleston and elsewhere would play out in the national election. Losses by Republicans in November, together with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the withdrawal of the remaining federal troops from the South, ended the promises of Reconstruction. A close reading of the Porcher Letter provides a look at this incident of Reconstruction.
A few days ago, a colleague asked me to distribute a job announcement from a nearby university. This is a pretty common practice and there are a lot of job searches underway. But this one caught my attention because the position description referred to building “distinctive collections.” I found the phrasing as an attempt to be clever, but more importantly it highlighted an archival challenge—to decide which archival and manuscript collections are the most or least important. Assigning the value of “distinctive” to collections is problematic since all collections are unique in some way and thus distinctive. Perhaps “distinctive” is another way of saying that the origins or provenance of the collection are significant (e.g., an unpublished manuscript that unearthed in J.D. Salinger’s backyard), that the collection is the “crown jewel” for the institution, or perhaps that it was just very expensive.
To me, a distinctive collection is one that has the potential to attract great research interest and can be used by researchers for multiple purposes. It is easy to pursue a collection, either through purchase or as a donation, that you believe has great research value, but it is always unknown whether others, such as colleagues and researchers, will have the same opinion. I spend a large amount of time considering which archival and manuscript collections would be a good fit for Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech. Most days, I spend some amount of time talking or corresponding with potential donors, reviewing dealer catalogs, seeking opinions from others on potential acquisitions, or searching through online auction listings. My goal is to identify collections that support research and the major collecting areas that we highlight in the blog. Working closely with collections once they arrive is not my normal routine, but sometimes I remain involved in organizing and creating access to the material that I helped bring in the doors.
As a recent example, I have spent many hours working with the William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879, which is one of my favorite acquisitions in the past five years. The story begins in early 2017 when I saw a listing for the collection in an auction catalog. Newton’s story fit well with the department’s collecting areas and researcher groups. The collection includes about 170 letters Newton wrote to his wife and children during the Civil War. The letters document the Civil War experiences of an Ohio surgeon serving in Virginia and West Virginia from 1862-1865. The collection also includes a postwar letter describing his experiences at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, which occurred in Pulaski County, approximately twenty miles from Blacksburg. Newton was assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry and near the end of the war served as surgeon of the 193rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
As for some background, William Smith Newton was born on February 6, 1823, near the small town of Harmer, in Washington County, Ohio. The town, now part of Marietta, was located where the Muskingum River flows into the Ohio River, with Virginia (now West Virginia) located on the other side to the south. He was the son of Oren and Elizabeth Fuller Newton. His father, Oren, was an important figure in the community and was involved in farming and the grindstone industry. Like other members of his family, Newton attended Marietta College. He completed his freshman year, 1842-1843, but he did not continue with courses or graduate from Marietta College. Instead, he took an interest in medicine and enrolled as a medical student in fall 1843 at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. Newton graduated in 1845 from the Medical College of Ohio and returned to Harmar.
In 1845, he married Frances Ann Hayward of Gallipolis and they relocated to Ironton, Ohio several years later. They had seven children during their marriage. Three of their children, Oren Hayward (1846–1858), Lewis Garland (May–October 1848), and Fanny Lillian (1857–1858), died before reaching adulthood. In 1862, when William enlisted in the Union Army, they had three children, Edward (Ned) Seymore (born 1850), Valentine Mott (born 1852), and Kate May (born 1860). Another child, John Beverly (born November 9, 1863), arrived during Newton’s military service.
In the fall of 1862, Newton was appointed assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry which has just been organized into five companies at Ironton. For the next three years, Newton wrote a steady stream of letters to his wife and children. Those incoming letters were kept together and most likely stayed with the Newton family after the war. At some point, the letters ended up in private hands, most recently with a well-known collector of antique firearms. Sometime in the 1970s, the owner of the collection at that time allowed most of the collection to be microfilmed for use at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. Thus, only a handful of researchers who either knew how to contact the owner or were willing to suffer through using microfilm made use of the collection. My search yielded one master’s thesis and a few books on Civil War military history that referred to the William S. Newton Papers. Clearly, access to the collection was limited and it deserved to be in an archival repository. I shared these details with colleagues on campus and in the department and all agreed that the Newton Papers would be a wonderful addition.
On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, I waited on the phone as a live bidder for the Newton Papers to be auctioned. After several bids, we were the successful bidder and a few weeks later the Newton Papers arrived Blacksburg. In the weeks and months that followed, the collection was given a catalog record and put in the backlog for later processing. In the meantime, I shared the news with many potential researchers and invited them to come look at the collection even though it was still unprocessed. In the months that followed I continued to suggest the Newton Papers to graduate students and other Civil War researchers. Surprisingly, I received a very small response and the collection was hardly used.
Despite limited interest from researchers, I was still convinced that Newton deserved more attention. In 2019, I decided to make the Newton Papers a priority. I began working through the included transcripts (which were rife with errors) and in just a few weeks I had become very familiar with the collection. A surprise offer of weekly hours from a graduate student from the history department to help with the transcription work kept the project active. As a potential output for all this work, I had a random conversation with a colleague at the University of Tennessee Press about the collection and they suggested that it would be a great fit for the Voices of the Civil War series. After a lot of consideration and some hesitation, I decided that a book of Newton’s edited letters (not an interpretative work) would be a great way to promote the collection and draw researchers to Civil War collections at Virginia Tech.
I was astonished with the depth of the letters and the range of topics discussed. Newton’s letters focus on many significant topics of the Civil War era—military maneuvers, race relations, politics, medical practices, and life among officers in camp. Newton reported on his work as a surgeon. He managed several hospitals (both in seized buildings and in the field), tended to patients, ordered supplies, arranged for the wounded to return home, and informed families of the loss of a loved one. Newton’s letters mention taking care of soldiers who he knew personally from his medical practice. Although a non-combatant, Newton experienced frequent skirmishes with Confederate raiders and was part of several significant military campaigns. His letters describe significant battles in West Virginia and Virginia, most notably the Second Battle of Kernstown, the Battle of Opequan (Third Battle of Winchester), and the Battle of Cedar Creek. Of note, Newton’s October 8, 1867 letter to Ohio adjutant general Benjamin R. Cowen documents his most harrowing moments during the Civil War—Newton’s capture by Confederates following the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, his role in operating on wounded Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins, and his brief imprisonment and release from Libby Prison later that month. Other letters describe his working relationships with officers in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Newton’s letters reveal the close connections between friend and enemy. For example, in October 1863, Newton was given charge of a Union hospital located in Charleston, West Virginia. In an October 10 letter, he explained “Our Hospital is in one of the finest houses of the town, and I am quartered in the parlor with a nice bed, cane bottom chairs & sofas, all belonging to some rebel, but I will take good care of them, and see they are not abused.” Two days later, Newton wrote “Last evening on examining the portraits hanging around the parlor, I discovered one that looked like John Ruby. On going to the book case, I found two or three with John C. Ruby written in full. I then enquired and found that not only his, but that of wife sister-in-law, Mother-inlaw, & Father-in-law, all in very large gilt frames, was this not a discovery.” Ruby was born in Gallia County, Ohio, which may explain why Newton knew him and his family. Newton concluded the letter saying “John Ruby is Quartermaster in 22nd Va. Reb Reg., and I am here living in his house & using his furniture. So the world moves, and such is war.”
The limited status of emancipated slaves in society was another element in Newton’s correspondence. In August 1863, Newton’s letters first mentioned Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union army following the raid of Wytheville. It is likely that Mary was sent to the hospital for examination and Newton claimed responsibility for her wellbeing. He decided to send Mary to Ironton to assist his wife and family. As part of the plan, Ned and Mott met her in Charleston, West Virginia, and took her back to Ironton. He was concerned that “negro traders” in Charleston might “steal her away from the boys before they get a boat,” but she safely made it to Ironton. Newton explained to his wife that Mary “belongs to you, that your interests are hers.” He suggested that “the boys teach her to read” and possibly write, but Newton made clear that Mary did not have any level of independence. In an August 23 letter he told his wife “You can make, or mold her into anything you desire.” The addition of Mary to the Newton household was not an easy adjustment. The letters were unclear on the details, but rumors about Mary’s trustworthiness circulated through Ironton and found their way back to Newton. The breaking point was the accusation that Mary had stolen personal items from the family. Some of the lost articles were later discovered and had simply been misplaced instead of stolen. Newton’s inquiries confirmed that all accusations against Mary were unfounded. Nonetheless, by October Newton’s wife had lost all trust in Mary and discharged her from service. She was no longer mentioned in their correspondence and there are no existing records to trace what happened to Mary Ann McDonald in the decades that followed. These and other letters make clear the overt racism throughout white society during this period.
Newton’s letters expressed a deep interest in family affairs. His letters advised on family matters such as buying and selling property back in Ohio, naming his newborn child, advising his teenage son Ned to live an upstanding life, prescribing medicines to remedy illnesses in the family, and preparing a new farm for when he could return home. His letters conveyed a deep sense of loneliness, especially for his wife.
As a possible cure for Newton’s homesickness, two of his children, Ned and Mott, visited him in camp. During the day, while he attended to the sick and wounded, his children would fish in nearby rivers and streams for their evening meal. On July 5, 1863 Newton explained:
Ned hardly has time to accompany me. He is very busy fishing, spends the day catching the little ones for bait, then at night puts out his trot, with 30 or 40 hooks. He wants me to tell you that he caught one on Friday morning weighing ten lbs. The soldiers had a good laugh, for he used one of the boat oars as a club, with which to pound the fish over the head, because it did not hold still. The only wonder is, that he did not knock it loose from the hook. He was alone at the time, and captured five in all.
My favorite letters were those written directly to Ned. In a February 24, 1864 letter, Newton scolded Ned for a variety of offenses. He wrote:
What would be your feelings, if a man, should you see another man, a stranger, impose upon your mother; would you not risk your life in resenting the imposition, or insult! If not, you are not of my blood or kindred. Then how much more despicable is he, that would abuse, or offer an insult to his own mother! . . . You certainly are not demented, or crazy, yet how could I suppose a boy almost 14 years of age, could commit such indiscretion. I truly hope no one knows of it.
In addition to disrespecting his mother, Ned was also playing with firearms. In the same letter Newton wrote:
Did you think it would afford me any happiness, to know that you were taking the gun out, contrary to my express command, and have you reflected that if, some accident should take place, how much misery you might cause to your parents & others.
Like any parent would, Newton outlined a remedy to get Ned back on the proper path—penmanship. Newton explained:
Character is said to be exhibited in the penmanship. If yours is the true exhibit of character, how uneven & unbalanced it must be. I fear your energy & resolutions are short lived, and to little purpose. Can you not do better! Will you not try! And before I see you, let me see some specimens of improvement, both in penmanship & character. Your happiness as well as mine depends upon it.
Newton’s later letters, especially those written in 1865, focused on his dreams for the postwar. He purchased a farm in West Union, Ohio from Benjamin F. Coates (colonel in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry) and advised his boys to begin preparing it for the family. There was a clear sense that Newton believed that farming represented an idyllic lifestyle and way to teach his children the value of hard work and patience. He wrote more letters to Ned during this period, and it appears that the teenager was again having behavior problems but took an interest in joining the church. Newton wanted both of his boys to be men of business instead of “town loafers.” Newton’s instructions for growing crops, cleaning fencerows, and tending to a new home were aimed at teaching Ned important life lessons in a more wholesome setting with fewer temptations.
After the war, Newton and family settled in Gallipolis and not in West Union. Newton resumed his medical practice, served as postmaster in Gallipolis, and participated in reunion activities with his former regiment. Included with the collection is a copy of Newton’s pension application. He suffered from several maladies which he attributed to his brief imprisonment at Libby Prison in 1864. Newton died on Saturday, November 18, 1882, just a few months shy of his sixtieth birthday.
Newton’s letters are as much about daily life and society of the 1860s as they are about the military or medical details of the Civil War. The more I followed clues in Newton’s letters the larger the puzzle of people, places, and topics became. I connected with descendants of the Newton family in Ohio and Florida, who were excited to learn more about their ancestors. In the months that followed, which included working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I continued to work on the project. During the summer of 2021, I finalized the processing and posted the finding aid to the Virginia Heritage database. The book of edited letters was accepted as part of the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War series and is scheduled to be published sometime in the spring of 2022. My involvement with this collection was significant, but the good news is that there is much more for researchers to discover by reading Newton’s letters.
I suppose the Newton Papers count as a distinctive collection for Virginia Tech because they were expensive, expansive in content, and touch on multiple research areas. But, the more I thought about the concept of a “distinctive collection” the more I wanted to avoid the term which sounds like certain collections should be prioritized from the larger whole and treated differently. Instead, the Newton Papers are an excellent addition to the already strong collecting areas of the Civil War in Virginia and Appalachian history at Virginia Tech. In other words, on its own merits the collection is wonderful, but it is even more significant when placed alongside other similar primary sources. As usual, I will be on the lookout for more collections that have such attributes. In the meantime, please come to the first floor of Newman Library and spend some time with the William S. Newton Papers, which are significant, unique, and far more than just distinctive.
After a year and a half without student workers onsite due to the pandemic, SCUA finally has a number of students in the department working on a variety of projects! I’m fortunate right now to supervise a couple of them on a number of processing projects in our different collecting areas, including the University Archives, Local/Regional History and Appalachian South, and the American Civil War, among others.
The Records of the Virginia Tech Dean of Students, Henry J. Holtzclaw, RG 8/2a, pertain to the work of Holtzclaw, who was the first person to serve as Dean of Students (also called Dean of Men) at VPI from 1923 to 1924. The collection is predominantly of correspondence between Holtzclaw and others at the university, such as President Julian Burruss, the Athletics Director C.P. Miles, and many other well known names from this time period.
The collection shows the intricacy and detail to which the Dean was involved in the everyday operations of the university. Holtzclaw helped develop the timetable and schedule of classes as well as the annual catalog. He oversaw the students’ attendance, handling requests for resigning from the university and their discipline in relation to hazing, poor grades, and rules violations. Dean Holtzclaw was also involved with the student organizations. One item of particular interest relates an incident when the Corps of Cadets was called to help put out a fire in town.
The Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004, contains items by and about Winthrop, who has the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the American Civil War. Winthrop served on the staff of General Benjamin Butler, when he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861.
While only one item, the Virginia Tax Receipt, Ms2021-009, is a unique document from 1859 as it identifies a freedman’s tax payments for Peter Logan of Chesterfield, Virginia. Looking through the records on Ancestry.com, Peter Logan (ca. 1810-1880) is a Black shoemaker from Chesterfield County, Virginia.
The Blacksburg Lions Club Records, Ms2021-022, document the work of the local Lions Club, primarily their charitable work with eye and ear diseases. We also received a number of music books, mostly men’s choral music and a couple Lions Club books, which will be added to the Rare Book Collection.
It’s not all unusual to find a lot of history wrapped up in a single, small, seemingly inconspicuous document. Sometimes you have to go looking for the stories contained in such a document. On other occasions, the stories shout their presence, even if their fullness has yet to be discovered. The Republican Party Flyer of 1921 is one of those documents. For years, in classes, I’ve used this document, this collection—the one document is the entire collection—to demonstrate the simple notion that archival collections can be small, a single sheet of paper; or large, consisting of hundreds of boxes of material. I’d breeze through its historical significance on the way to explaining “finding aids” to students who had not yet encountered them, that being the real goal of that particular moment in class.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded to consider at greater length the history that passes through this ballot, this piece of newsprint—approximately ten inches tall and five inches wide—that names eight individuals, eight political offices, and eight cities and towns in Virginia. It is the first and only all-African American statewide party ticket in Virginia’s history. As such, it represents a significant moment in the history of African American involvement in and exclusion from Virginia politics. That story bears repeating, even if only in the cursory and incomplete fashion that follows, as appropriate to this blogpost.
Even before the end of the Civil War, African Americans in Norfolk organized to insist on their full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. In May 1865, over 1000 Black men of Norfolk attempted to take part in a local election. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, some did vote, but none of the votes were officially recorded and none of the winners took their offices. On 5 June, members of Norfolk’s Black community met with members of the Colored Monitor Union Club and agreed to a statement that was printed later that year under the title, Equal Suffrage. Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, VA., to the People of the United Sates. Also an Account of the Agitation Among the Colored People of Virginia for Equal Rights. With an Appendix Concerning the Rights of Colored Witnesses Before the State Courts. The second paragraph of the Address states:
“We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot.”1
It was not until the first Reconstruction Acts were passed by Congress in the spring of 1867 that the Southern states were required to hold conventions for the purpose of producing new state constitutions and to permit African American men to both vote for members of the conventions and to hold seats. When it came time to vote in Virginia on 22 October 1867, many white voters refused to vote and, as a result, supporters of radical reform of the state constitution won a majority of seats, including 24 African American men.2
The convention, sometimes referred to as the Underwood Convention, named for its presiding officer, the Radical Republican Federal judge John C. Underwood, was held between 3 December 1867 and 17 April 1868. Among the provisions of the new constitution was the granting of the right to vote to all male citizens who had reached the age of 21 and the disenfranchisement of men who supported the Confederacy. (Underwood had also argued in support of extending the franchise to women, but his argument failed.) By the time the new Constitution stood for and won ratification by popular vote on 6 July 1869, the measure to remove the voting rights of former confederates had been successfully separated as a distinct voting issue and was defeated. Elections for statewide officials and members of the General Assembly were also held. A Black candidate for lieutenant governor, Joseph D. Harris, lost, as did much of the radical Republican ticket, but thirty African American men won seats to the General Assembly, the first to win election to the Virginia legislature.
In the elections of 1871, ’73, and ’75, between eighteen and twenty African American candidates won election to the General Assembly. About one hundred Black Virginians served in either the Assembly or the Constitutional Convention between 1867 and 1895. Many more served in local office. Luther Porter Jackson’s 1945 study, Negro Office-holders in Virginia 1865–1895, offers a roster of these individuals, along with biographical notes and, in the case of those who served in the General Assembly, an analysis of their efforts to legislate towards achieving greater equality between the races.
In 1876, two amendments to the Constitution aimed at reducing the number of Black voters had been submitted by the Conservative Party and ratified statewide. These amendments introduced a poll tax and the disenfranchisement of individuals convicted of minor offenses, such as petty theft. In 1877, the number of African Americans in the General Assembly fell to eight and to four by 1889.
With the exception of the years at the end of the 1870s and early 1880s when the Readjusters (a biracial reform party formed in coalition with Republicans) held power, Virginia politics were completely under the control of the Conservatives, followed by a newly formulated Democratic Party, that is, by the parties of the white elite and of white supremacy. (The end of the Readjusters’ political power in the state is often regarded as having been signaled by the successful description by Democrats of an 1883 Danville street fight that ended in violence, as a race riot, with the Readjusters to blame.3) During the mid-1880s, with Democrats in charge, new laws were passed in Virginia, including the Anderson-McCormick Act of 1884, which made voting by Black men more difficult and successful runs for office by Black men rare. Other measures and practices had already appeared for the purpose of reducing the Black vote. By the time the Readjusters had been ousted, the White Republicans that remained increasingly became more doubtful of their own chances for political success as long as they were identified with African Americans or African American causes.
Virginia did send one Black congressman to Washington during this time, John Mercer Langston, who served one term from 1889 to 1891. The election was complicated, contested and, as a result, Langston only served the last seven months of his term. Part of the complication involved Langston splitting the Republican vote with a white Republican candidate who had been nominated at a separate convention that excluded Langston’s supporters. Only the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in a contest of many twists and turns resulted in Langston taking his seat. He represented the Fourth District, the only one in Virginia in which the African American population was greater than that of whites. By 1891 when Langston’s term ended in the U.S. House—he was not reelected—not one African American still served in either house of the Virginia legislature.
The passage of the 1894 Walton Act, introduced ostensibly to curtail corruption in election practice, had the otherwise intended effect of introducing a literacy test for voters. As such it was a measure to further guarantee the disenfranchisement of African Americans and a stepping stone toward calls for a new state constitution that would codify the dominance of the Democratic Party and the exclusion of Virginia’s African Americans from electoral politics and the exercise of political power. Writing in the online Encyclopedia Virginia, Brent Tarter writes:
“By the 1890s, a large proportion of black men and thousands of white Republicans in eastern Virginia were effectively disfranchised. Democrats regularly won overwhelming control of the General Assembly and most of the state’s congressional seats. During that decade, when the agrarian reform movement known as the Populist Movement threatened to rupture Democratic Party unity in Virginia, some Democrats employed the means by which they had contrived to win elections against Republicans to steal elections from other Democrats. The corruption led to enough demands for reform that a majority of the Democrats in the General Assembly passed a law in 1900 to hold a referendum on whether to summon a constitutional convention. A central objective of the supporters of the convention movement was to deprive African Americans of the suffrage and thereby eliminate the Democrats’ need to cheat in order to win.”4
One basis for that last, remarkable line may be the words of Alfred P. Gillespie, a Republican of Tazewell County, who said at the Constitutional Convention, which met in two sessions between 12 June 1901 and 26 June 1902:
“I have been taught to believe that where a man was guilty of a fraud, or of cheating another man, the man who committed the fraud should be punished, that a man who steals a vote should be punished. . . . The remedy suggested here is to punish the man who has been injured. It is now proposed to right a wrong by punishing those who have been defrauded of their votes to the extent of destroying their right of suffrage; in other words, the negro vote of this Commonwealth must be destroyed to prevent the Democratic election officers from stealing their votes, for it seems that, as long as there is a negro vote to be stolen, there will be a Democratic election officer ready to steal it.”5
When asked if discrimination was at the core of the proposed suffrage article of the new constitution, Carter Glass of Lynchburg, a member of the committee charged with producing that article, said, “Why, that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what the Convention was elected for—to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution, with a view to elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”6
The Constitution that would have the effect of disenfranchising approximately 90% of the previously eligible Black voters, not to mention about 50 % of whites,7 was not put to the voters of Virginia for approval. Instead, having been adopted by the Convention, it was, following judicial challenges, ruled to be “the only rightful, valid, and existing constitution in the State” by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia on 18 June 1903 and to have been legally in effect since 10 July 1902. The Constitution of 1902 was the legal elevation of the Jim Crow South in Virginia. It marked the achievement of the effort to turn back voting rights for African Americans that had begun as soon as those rights were obtained. It was the legal counterpart to the acts of intimidation and violence that accompanied that effort (and are beyond the scope of this overly-long blogpost) and laid the legal groundwork for the continued culture of intimidation and segregation that would follow. A few numbers:
— In the Presidential election of 1900, 264,240 Virginians voted; in 1904, the number was 135,865 — The Republican percentage of Virginia’s vote in the 1900 Presidential election was 43.8%; in 1904, it was 35.2% — In 1900, 147,000 Black Virginians registered to vote; in 1904, about 21,000 tried to register and fewer than half qualified8
As Southern Democrats reasserted control over the political process to remove African Americans, White Republicans responded to their need to reassert claims to their own political relevance by seeking increased support from White southerners and throwing off the Democrats’ claim that the Republican Party was the “Party of the Negro.” One form of this effort among Republicans was the formation of what became known as the Lily-White movement. Although it can be said to have officially started in Texas in 1886, the movement and the name spread throughout the South. In Virginia, the decline in the percentage of Black delegates sent to the Republican national conventions is one measure: from a high in 1872 of 44.1% the percentage dropped to 23.2% in 1888, 9.8% in 1904, and 0% in 1920.9 In July 1921, white delegates to the Republican state convention in Norfolk, which would determine the slate of statewide candidates, refused to seat almost all Black delegates who had been elected to participate and prohibited all Black spectators from attending. This, then, is some of the context out of which the Republican Party ballot of 1921 (remember that?) arose.
The convention in Norfolk nominated Henry W. Anderson, a lily-white Republican, as candidate for governor. Part of his platform was to attempt to remove questions of race from the contest with Democrats by claiming to be every bit a white supremacist as they. (Of course, the Democrats didn’t see it that way.) In opposition to the lily-white Republicans and claiming to be the true representatives of the Republican Party, an alternate convention was called and held in Richmond on 5 September 1921 with approximately 600 Black delegates attending.
The result was the formation of Virginia’s only statewide, all-African American ticket, which became known as the lily-black ticket, the slate represented on the ballot we have in Special Collections. The convention had been championed by the Richmond Planet, the city’s weekly African American newspaper. The paper’s longtime editor, John Mitchell, Jr. was chosen to head the ticket as candidate for Governor. Mitchell had served on the Richmond Common Council from 1888 to 1896 and, as editor of the Planet, had earned a reputation for his fight against the 1901 Constitutional Convention, his efforts against lynching, and as an advocate for civil rights and racial justice. Mitchell did not use the name lily-black to describe the ticket.
Perhaps the person best known today on the ticket is Maggie L. Walker, candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Also a resident of Richmond, Walker became a candidate for statewide office about a year after women gained the right to vote nationally with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Note that Virginia’s General Assembly did not ratify the amendment until 1952.) She is often noted as being the first Black woman in the country to establish and become president of a bank, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank, chartered in 1903. A year earlier, she founded the St. Luke Herald newspaper, through which she supported women’s suffrage, equal educational opportunities for African American children, and fought against segregation and lynching. In 1905 she helped to establish the Saint Luke Emporium, a department store owned and run by African Americans for the African American community. Her house in Richmond was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.
Theodore Nash, from Portsmouth, was candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Joseph Thomas Newsome, graduate of Howard University Law School, leading attorney, and community leader from Newport News was the candidate for Attorney-General. Thomas E. Jackson, candidate for Treasurer from Staunton, was manager of the Staunton Reporter and an officer of the People’s Dime Savings Bank. Francis V. Bacchus, a pharmacist in Lynchburg, was the choice for Secretary of the Commonwealth. J. L. Reed of Roanoke and A.P. Brickhouse of Exmore were the candidates for Corporation Commissioner and Commissioner of Agriculture, respectively.
There were no expectations that the ticket would be successful and there was not much of a campaign. Brent Tarter describes the campaign as “quixotic” and reports that Mitchell not only did not campaign, but that he took a vacation prior to the election.10 It was a mostly symbolic protest that failed to capture not only the Republican vote, but the Black vote, as well. Plummer Bernard Young, editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a rival of Mitchell’s Planet, for example, was offered the nomination for Lieutenant Governor, declined, and did not support the ticket. Outside of the Black press, it received very little attention. John Mitchell received 5,036 votes in an election in which the victor, Democrat E. Lee Trinkle received 139,416. Henry Anderson, the lily-white Republican had 65,833 votes. In her contest, Maggie Walker received 6,991 votes out of 208,576 cast in the state.
But this ballot represents a kind of courage that is significant and should be noted. This single sheet of paper can’t be dismissed as a mere historical object of protest, but seen as representing an act of bravery that emerged from a history that includes much bravery in the face of repression, injustice, and violence. More than that, it speaks to a kind of bravery in the political sphere, in the realm of electoral politics that seems so relevant today, as, admittedly—let’s face it—it always is.
If you grew up knowing all of this history, forgive me for repeating it, even at this length. I’m fairly well-informed on matters concerning Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but not having grown up in Virginia or ever read deeply into the political history of the state, I’ve missed some of the details. Maybe you have, too. And the details matter. The Constitution of 1902 remained in effect until 1971, for example.
I was asked to include the Republican Party Flyer of 1921 in a conversation with students a few weeks ago to draw attention to the season in which we now find ourselves, and to use it, if obliquely, as a reminder to VOTE. (With a shoutout to Danna Agmon! Thanks!)
So, remember . . . and remember to VOTE!
— — — — — —
CODA:This post has led me to recall another run for office, perhaps also a little too forgotten today, but every bit as significant and courageous. Ultimately, Shirley Chisholm, member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the New York 12th and a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, won 151 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, but lost to Senator George McGovern.
Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.
To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues. Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”
Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.
Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone); Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.
There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).
After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.
Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.
As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.
If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.
My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”
The university has celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day for awhile now. One of our graduate students Jamelle Simmons has been researching and updating the Black History Timeline for the University Archives. In his research, Simmons found several items about the university’s commemorations of Rev. Dr. King and his legacy, which have been hosted and sponsored over the years by the Virginia Tech Union, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Black Caucus, Black Organizations Council, Black Cultural Center, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, and others. Items include student event calendars, newspaper articles, and flyers. This year, the Cultural and Community Centers established the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oration Competition as an annual event.
Rev. Dr. King has been remembered at Virginia Tech even before the establishment of the holiday, ever since his assassination on April 4, 1968. On the following day, students held a vigil at Burruss Hall surrounding the U.S. and Virginia flags. Initially the flags were raised to full mast, so mourners lowered both to half mast and protected the flags while talking to passersby about King’s ideals and nonviolent beliefs. Although they were forced to restore the flags to full mast, in the afternoon President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered flags lowered in King’s honor, which the university complied with. A transcript of The Virginia Tech (precursor to The Collegiate Times) article is available on the Black History Timeline.
Linda Edmonds, one of the first six Black women admitted to Virginia Tech in 1966, wrote notes of her thoughts upon Rev. Dr. King’s death (the first two paragraphs, written on April 4, 1968) and the initial raising of the flag to full mast (the last paragraph, written on April 5, 1968). The notes and transcript follow below:
A Tribute … Thoughts when Dr. King Died
The way I feel today … is lost.
I feel a faint beat of hope, but is there a way? What will be the cost? A man dies, another is born. The circle goes on. Why take away something that we cannot replace? Take my body, hurt it, hurt it, the pain ceases after awhile; though death is sometimes the final release. But don’t tear down my heart, don’t make me hate the sight of my fellow man. Don’t take my dignity and trust in mankind. If you do we are both lost.
I need somebody to talk to, somebody that will not say you have to be strong now, I’m not. You can’t help me can you? – You believe you know how I feel?
This morning when the flag was raised to its highest level–gloom surrounded my being. The march–step–step–step of the uniformed men–the systematic order of it all. You 3, you had your orders to follow, but how did your hearts feel? Did you realize that I could not look up with pride when the flag was blowing so powerfully in the early crisp air. Maybe you did, but you told yourself well it has to be. The U.S. flag was torn at the ends, the tears started climbing and winding their ways through that symbol of the country that I am a native of. Will there soon be nothing left but strips of cloth floating individually about the flag pole? Some bits will no doubt lose strength all together and drift off into the air and never return. No, this will not happen, we will buy a new flag and everything will be O.K.; I can smile and be happy looking at the stars and stripes forever. But I can’t smile and be happy with my fellowman because people just want to exchange hate and past mistakes for something better. The society tears apart – floating about in individual strips, it eventually loses strength and bits of it drift off into the air and never return.
In addition to these items related to the university, Special Collections has other publications by and about Rev. Dr. King. In the Bishop William H. Marmion Papers, Ms 1986-013, there is a pamphlet copy of King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, published by the American Friends Service Committee in May 1963. For those of you who may not know, Birmingham leaders working with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began protesting segregation in the city with organized demonstrations in April 1963. The city obtained an injunction against the protests, which the leaders disobeyed, resulting in King’s arrest. Several local white clergymen publicly criticized the protests, prompting King to respond with the now famous letter. In it he defends his participation as an “outsider,” explains the value and steps of a nonviolent campaign, and questions the clergymen’s insistence on waiting for a resolution to continued injustice.
According to the King Encyclopedia by Stanford University’s King Institute, Rev. Dr. King gave the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) organization, permission to publish the letter in May 1963 as a pamphlet. The group had been working with King since 1956 after the Montgomery bus boycott, but they had been involved with anti-racism activities since the 1920s, only a few years after their founding during World War I. With permission from King, the AFSC distributed 50,000 copies of the Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, and that same year nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded the following year.
Another item in our collections is the book, We Shall Live in Peace: The Teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Deloris Harrison and illustrated by Ernest Crichlow. The book outlines King’s life and discusses several significant steps in his fight for civil rights, including excerpts from his writings. Born in Bedford, Virginia, Harrison graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, and received a master’s from New York University in 1963. She began teaching in New York City in 1961, and was chosen as a Fulbright teacher in 1966. Crichlow (1914-2005) was a Brooklyn artist coming out of the Harlem Renaissance and known for his works concerning social injustice for African Americans. According to his New York Times obituary, he studied commercial art in Manhattan and worked in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. In 1957, Crichlow cofounded and served as first chairperson of the Fulton Arts Fair, which showcased the works of both new and established artists in the community. The Petrucci Family Foundation’s Collection of African-American Art entry on Crichlow states that in 1980, President Jimmy Carter honored Crichlow and nine other black artists from the National Conference of Artists at the White House.
A few excerpt pages from We Shall Live in Peace by Harrison and Crichlow appear below, and I encourage anyone interested to come into Special Collections to see this beautiful book.
Of course, there are numerous other items in our collections related to Rev. Dr. King and the greater Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and before and after), so I hope that you will come into Special Collections to take a look for yourself. And don’t forget to attend some of the events planned for the annual celebrations for Martin Luther King Jr. Day here at Virginia Tech and in the local community.
While looking through some recently acquired items, I came across a yearbook from 1939. Generally, an old yearbook is a good reference book for research about people or a school but they’re also relatively easy to find. This one, however, seemed special. The yearbook is The Peabodian from 1939. There are a few things that make it interesting: the history of Peabody High school, the content of the yearbook, the construction of the yearbook, and how few copies are available for use. This book has history.
It’s clear from the moment one picks it up that this yearbook is special. The cover is faded and stained with a late-art deco style design. The interior contains 111 pages printed on the front only. Each page is mimeographedand bound through two holes to the cover. The photos in the yearbook are black-and-white prints that were pasted to the pages. Looking at each page, the age of the volume is apparent. The paste used to secure the photos began to release at some point and someone taped the photos in. Then, the tape was removed and the photos were glued in again. Because of the failing adhesives over the years, there are some photos missing. Still, the volume is beautifully made and was likely somewhat expensive when it was printed. At this time, the only copies of this yearbook that we know of are the one we just acquired and one other at the University of Virginia.
About the school
Peabody High School was originally known as the Colored High School. Instruction began in 1870 in an old First Baptist Church building in Petersburg, Virginia. It was the first public school established for people of color in Virginia. The first five principals were white men. In 1874, after outgrowing the old church, a new building opened to house the school. It was named for Massachusetts Philanthropist George Peabody because much of the funding for the new building came from The George Peabody Fund. In 1882, the first person of color was named principal: Alfred Pryor. In the early nineteen-teens, the school moved again. The new site had two buildings: Peabody, the senior high school, and Williams, the junior high school – named for Henry Williams, the minister of the Gilfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. This came shortly before Virginia schools moved from a three year high school course of study to a four year course. By 1921-1922, Peabody had an accredited four year high school course of study. It moved again in 1951 to a new facility. Due to Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance, the school remained segregated until 1970. When it was finally integrated, the school board decided Peabody would be a middle school and Petersburg High School would be the area’s only high school. The school is in operation to this day as Peabody Middle School.
The yearbook contains a dedication to Mr. H. Colson Jackson. This is Henry Colson Jackson who was born in 1903 in Petersburg, Virginia. During his 70 year teaching career, one of the places he taught was Peabody High School.
The dedication reads:
We dedicate this book to one who has held a place of respect and admiration among the students of Peabody High School for many years.One who has been a friend and advisor to all who have asked his help or advice. One who is untiring in any endeavor he undertakes, and who strives for perfection, a man who is cooperative and understanding – – – – Mr. H. Colson Jackson.
This yearbook comes just a few years after the start of many of the school’s clubs:
The Peabody Script (school newspaper) – Started in 1936
Dramatic Club – Started in 1937-1938
Girls Club – Started in 1937
Peabody Melodic Club – Started in 1938
Civics Club – Unknown start date but sponsoring faculty changed in 1939
Domestic Science Club – Started in 1934
Domestic Art Club – Started in 1936, Reorganized in 1939
Peabody Hi-y Club – Started in 1932, split into a Senior Hi-y Club (for juniors and seniors) and a Junior Hi-y Club (for freshmen and sophomores) in 1939
Public Speaking and Debating Club – Started in 1936
Athletics (football, basketball) – Started in 1936
These extracurriculars mostly began during the short time that Clarence W. Seay was principal and then continued once Donald C. Wingo took the position. During the short time they existed up to this point, the clubs were active in bringing art and entertainment to the student body and the area. The Dramatic Club had already participated twice in the Annual State Dramatic Tournament and the Peabody Melodic Club had hosted the Huntington High School Chorus and was raising money to buy a “radio-victrola” (a radio).
At the back of the yearbook, there is a section for advertisements which mostly consists of ads from local establishments in Petersburg, Virginia. In addition to that, there is a full-page color advertisement for Milton Bradley Co. School Supplies. This is indeed the Milton Bradley Company that comes to mind today as a board game manufacturer. Milton Bradley (the person) believed strongly in early childhood education and this led him to expand his business beyond games and into school supplies. Some interesting information on this can be found on the FindingUniverse site or in various biographical articles about Bradley. This part of the business continued until the end of the 1930s depression era.
Looking through this volume of Virginia history, U.S. history, and the history of education for people of color highlights the joy and pride this group of students and educators took in their pursuits. From senior quotes to senior superlatives and debate to football, the students at this school were engaged and amazing.
More about the history of the school can be found on the Peabody High School National Alumni Association site.For more on education for people of color in Virginia and the commonwealth’s struggle to desegregate, check out the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) project hosted by Old Dominion University’s Special Collections and University Archives. To see the yearbook for yourself, stop by Special Collections at Virginia Tech and we’d be happy to let you take a look.
Many times over the course of this blog either I or one of my colleagues has written about an aspect of the job of being an archivist that can best be described as “discovery.” Typically, we find something we’ve never seen before, didn’t know about, or never heard of. Sometimes, it’s finding out that several of those Eudora Welty editions that you’ve walked by hundreds of times are signed by the author. Or—as mentioned in a recent post by one of our student workers—discovering in a newly acquired collection that some number of rodents had a fondness for those hundred year-old letters . . . a fondness for eating them or living in them. Not long ago, I came across a letter in which a sitting president of this university turned down an offer to become president of the University of Virginia. I’m sure someone knew about that, but I didn’t. On and on. Surely, it’s one of the most interesting aspects of working in the archives.
Even so, it was surprising, if not a bit mysterious, when, several years ago, an entire collection of pamphlets—ten cubic feet of pamphlets and other publications from the 1920s through the early 1970s—mostly having to do with African American politics and history, but also with Africa, the West Indies, Asia, and the Communist Party of the United States, was “found” in a Special Collections storage area. At that time, our staff had increased sufficiently to be able to begin to process the unprocessed or minimally processed “hidden collections” we expected to find there. Also, the space needed to be reclaimed for more active purposes. The materials were in folders labeled by section and most of the pieces had an adhesive label that named the section and numbered the item, the labeling bit being a very un-archivist-like action!
Right there in the upper right-hand corner, for example, is a sticker that reads, “Black Panther Party no.13” on a booklet titled, Here and Now for Bobby Seale: Essays by Jean Genet. The back cover has a New York phone number and the name of the Committee to Defend the Panthers. There is no date on the publication, but it is a reprint of articles published in the June 1970 issue of Ramparts. In the essays, Genet presents his appeal to defend Seale against murder charges in New Haven. The booklet concludes by presenting the Panther platform and program and offering subscriptions to the Black Panther Party Black Community News Service. Here are a few other examples from this part of the collection:
A full list of these publications can be viewed in the finding aid for the collection. In addition to “Black Panther Party,” you’ll see section titles that designate a wide variety of subjects, including: Black Power, Black Nationalism, ACLU, Arts, Brownsville TX, Church, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Convict Labor, Communism, Courts, Education, Music, Lynching, NAACP, Propaganda-Communist, Prisons, Race Problems, South, and many others. The African American material accounts for about half the collection. The material related to Africa, about a quarter of the collection, similarly, represents a wide range of topics, from Apartheid, Algeria, Britain in Africa and Burundi to Uganda and Zambia. The Caribbean material is grouped, first, by country or island, and then by social and/or political issue, with topics such as Trade Unions, Revolution, Industrialization, and People’s National Movement represented. Another box contains about 60 publications grouped simply under the title, “Communism.” These tend to share in the radical/leftist perspective of many of the others—though not exclusively—but have little or nothing to do with Black America or Africa. Pamphlets on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or the House Un-American Activities Committee are present alongside more Soviet-related matters, such as Trotsky as counter-revolutionary or the assassination of Sergei Kirov. Here are some examples from these areas:
So, what was this extremely rich collection doing in a storage area? How long had it been there? How had the collection been used in the past. How did it get here? When? Who put those labels on the individual items? We started using the collection almost immediately, even before we wrote the finding aid, mostly in conjunction with classes that came to Special Collections for instruction, but the questions remained. I wondered if it had been brought in decades ago as a general collection for the library, not by Special Collections, perhaps made available and then put away for some reason and largely forgotten. Maybe too much radical material? And there was just the nagging impression that the collection had not been processed the way any self-respecting archivist would have done. Yet it had been foldered, even though some of the classifications were odd and then there were those #$@*&! stickers!
Two of the largest sections—series, as they are properly called—are titled, Discrimination and Negroes. (The latter, especially, may suggest a clue as to when the collection arrived.) Here, too, broad ranges of topics are covered, but often overlapping with other series. There are materials, for example, on discrimination in housing and employment, in the military, and with regard to voting and transportation. As in the rest of the collection, there are original pamphlets; also reprints of articles from publications as diverse as the New York Times, Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, and Political Affairs. There’s a typed November 1929 release from the Negro Labor News Service and an article clipped from the April 1944 issue of Spotlight written by Adam Clayton Powell while he was first running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here’s a view of some of the pieces in these series:
Yes, that’s Joe Louis with the rifle and bayonet. If you look through the galleries above, you’ll get a sense of just how rich this collection is. There are even some right-wing pamphlets thrown in, like the one that declares the 14th amendment unconstitutional or one from Christian Crusade Publications that proclaims, “The Black Panthers Are Not Black . . . They Are Red!”
But to get back to the mystery, it appears that the collection arrived sometime by April 1974. We found a memo dated 4 April 1974 (we are the Archives, after all) that reads:
Pamphlet files on Afro-American Studies, Communism, and Viet-Nam
Each of these files has its own set of catalog cards in Spec—shelf, author, title and subject, prepared by a cataloger who worked in Spec for this project only. Mr. Bechanan is considering what should be in the Main catalog referring patrons to these files.
H. Gordon Bechanan was Assistant Director of Newman Libraries from 1972 to 1974, when he was made Director. He served in that capacity until 1984. The reference to the collection as a project does suggest that the collection was brought in—undoubtedly, purchased—as a complete entity. The Library did not assemble this collection itself. Most likely, those stickers and the designation by subject was done by the dealer from whom the collection was purchased. (Again, no archivist worth his or her salt . . . never mind.)
As for the efforts of the cataloger and those shelf cards, we found them, too. How they might have been used is anyone’s guess, but the information on them was apparently not transferred to the library’s online catalog when the card catalog system was replaced. I’ve heard that the collection may have been purchased in response to a suggestion or expectation that an African American studies program or department would be formed on campus, but that didn’t happen here in the 1970s. So, as is sometimes the case, maybe there are other records not yet found or maybe, as was true of Special Collections in those years, record-keeping may not have been nearly as complete as it is today. But the answer to the question of how this collection ended up in a storage room remains uncertain.
What is certain is that this is a fabulous collection. As someone who cares deeply about primary source research, I know there are countless questions for which this material will provide a step or several steps along somebody’s research path. Do you know who Angela Davis is, or why there were calls for her to be freed? (She did speak briefly at the Womens March in Washington the day after the inauguration last January.) Why do we have several pieces about her in German? Who was Lieutenant Leon Gilbert or Harry T. Moore or William Milton? We know about Emmett Till, but have you looked at any sources from time of his tragic death? This blog offered a post about the Scottboro trials and, specifically, Langston’s Hughes’s relation to that situation, but did you know about the Freeport GI slayings in 1946? I didn’t until I looked at “Dixie Comes to New York,” one of the pamphlets in the collection.
Once lost, but then found, the Black History Pamphlet Collection provides an important gateway to understanding, a route to discovery and rediscovery. We have kept the classifications as they are, even though they may be inaccurate and, at times, anachronistic, in keeping with the imperative to respect the original order of the collection. In other words, we’re treating the collection as a cultural and documentary artifact itself. And although most of our digitization efforts focus on unpublished sources—because they are truly unique—Special Collections is considering this collection as a candidate for such an effort. We need to find out just how many of these pamphlets are held elsewhere and how many may already be available online, but the importance of the collection is undeniable. At any rate, for those folks in the area or those who can travel to Blacksburg, it presents significant opportunities for reading and study. Come visit Special Collections!
A little over a month ago, in honor of Black History Month, I wrote about the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF) in Blacksburg. This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about the Household of Ruth, No. 5533. Household of Ruth is the women’s order of the GUOOF. In Blacksburg, Household of Ruth, No. 5533 was activefor most of the time the Tadmore Lodge was active, starting a few years after the men’s group. The mission of the Household of Ruth is support of the men in their endeavors and relief of the needy, sick, and distressed. Among the papers we have from GUOOF there are papers from the Household of Ruth, including the General Laws and Regulations for the order.
Other papers from the Household of Ruth include general correspondence and a minutes book containing many notations about dues.
One of the most interesting items I found in the collection is a letter from the neighboring lodge in Radford, VA requesting assistance after their lodge building burned.
A particular highlight of the collection is a postcard addressed to Miss Nettie Anderson from another member of the lodge. The postcard is from around Thanksgiving in 1916 and features a scene with grapes and a turkey.