Prologue Magazine

A Guiding Light

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Debra Newman Ham

In 1984 the National Archives Trust Fund Board published the guide I compiled called Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives. This project was a labor of love offered as a tribute to all my African American forebears who had paved the way to liberty and full citizenship. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in York, Pennsylvania, where the African American population was small, I did not know that blacks had any history worth writing about. I learned only that slaves were docile beings who sang and danced. At William Penn Senior High School I did learn a bit about Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington, but I still remained in abysmal ignorance otherwise.

During my junior year, a mentor, noting that my acculturation was totally Eurocentric, took me to a homecoming weekend at a historically black college. After one weekend, my focus changed from Vassar College to Howard University. At Howard in the mid-sixties, I encountered black power, the civil rights movement in all its fullness, black nationalism, black aesthetics, riots with tanks and armed soldiers, tear gas, student protests, sit-in demonstrations, and antiwar furor. In the midst of these mind-stretching and soul-stirring events, a variety of charismatic speakers came to the campus urging students to learn about black history and culture and to use that knowledge to improve the condition of the race.

I thought that my knowledge of current events was all I needed to be a black history expert. I had learned about a few slave revolts, but I generally believed that all those blacks who had lived before our activist generation had been compromising accommodationists and "Uncle Toms" whose rare calls for liberty had been tepid and fruitless. While I was pontificating during a history class in my sophomore or junior year, Professor Olive Taylor cut me off, told me I knew nothing about black history, and forbade me to open my mouth in her class again until I read one of the black history surveys listed in the syllabus.

Challenged, I immediately proceeded to Founders Library, checked out John Hope Franklin's tome From Slavery to Freedom (3d ed., 1967), and read it over the weekend so I would be ready for Dr. Taylor on Monday. I was ready, too, but not in the way I had envisioned. I was ready to say that the professor had been exactly right. I realized with shame that I had known nothing about the history of my people before I read that book. I was humiliated and exhilarated at the same time. Worlds, centuries, and secrets opened before me as I read my way into territory hitherto unknown to me. I changed my major. History was for me.

After graduating with a B.A. in history from Howard in 1970 and completing a summer internship at the National Archives in the Exhibits Branch, I moved to Boston to study African history at Boston University. I got a master's degree there while working part-time as an oral history transcriber at the John F. Kennedy Library. Unhappy with Boston, I began to search for work at the end of 1971. My first interview was at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and I was hired within ten minutes by Walter Robertson, an administrator I had met in 1970. I was assigned to assist the black history specialist, Robert Clarke, a former faculty member from Virginia State University.

Mr. Clarke's primary responsibility was to compile a guide to black history resources at the National Archives. Additionally, he was planning a major conference that would feature leading historians of the African American experience.1 Staff members were very interested in the proposed guide to black history materials in the collections and were eager to share all sorts of information with me. They brought cards and notes, made annotations on published finding aids, and granted me countless personal interviews. I began making card files arranged by record group. I was voracious. I wanted to see the big picture while living gleefully under this mountain of information.

At the National Archives I encountered raw historical data for the first time. Sure, I had used newspapers and printed journals and other types of primary sources, but I had never before lived in a world of documents. I expected to encounter little snatches of black history here and there, but instead I literally found millions of documents relating to African American life and culture.

Seasoned African American archivists and technicians like Lillian Grandy, Joseph Ross, James Walker, Albert Blair, Patricia Andrews, Sara Jackson, Harold Pinkett, and others shared copious amounts of information with me. Other archivists who were not black, but who were pleased to share their knowledge on the subject, spent hours teaching and training me to look for clues and information. I soon learned that I should assume that all federal records did have some information about blacks unless I could prove otherwise.

I was especially fascinated by an elderly white-haired archivist, Donald King, who shared with me the vast riches of the records of the Bureau of Customs. This kind gentleman showed me slave manifests and records relating to black customs officials and African American crewmen. The more he talked, the more I wanted to record every syllable he spoke so that the vast knowledge that he had gained during his tenure would not perish with him at the end of his career.

Right then I resolved to write down and publish every piece of information about African Americans I found in the National Archives so that whoever came after me would be able to find all that I had found. I wanted to be systematic and concise, yet descriptive enough so that even an untutored researcher could find what I had found. I do not know when I began seeing myself as a historical detective lost in a rare, wonderful world of dusty documents, but I soon began to be able to sniff out clues to the rich history reposing in the stacks.

With the aid of Deborah Mariner and Michael Frazier, student interns from Virginia State University, I produced two special lists: List of Free Black Heads of Families in the First Census of the United States (SL 34, 1973) and List of Black Servicemen Compiled from the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records (SL 36, 1974). Although the lists did not provide all the names of free black heads of families or black Revolutionary War soldiers, both were well received and stayed in print for many years.

In 1974 I transferred to the Industrial and Social Branch of the Office of the National Archives. There I worked with an archivist named Joseph Howerton, who had a long-standing interest in black labor history. He taught me how to navigate the Department of Labor record groups and many other collections. In 1976 the National Archives published a finding aid I had compiled, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Social Security Administration (PI 183); that same year my article "Black Women in Pennsylvania in the Era of the American Revolution" appeared in the Journal of Negro History. A year later the Archives issued my Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of Economic Opportunity (PI 188). My most ambitious finding aid appeared in 1977. It was entitled Selected Documents Pertaining to Black Workers Among the Records of the Department of Labor and Its Component Bureaus, 1902–1969 (SL 40). This finding aid included lists of individual documents and articles from several record groups, arranged chronologically under subject headings. During the years I spent preparing this publication, I had the opportunity to produce some articles for scholarly journals and make oral presentations at a wide variety of conferences. My primary purpose was always to highlight the rich lode of archival Afro-Americana.

Because the general guide to black history records in the National Archives was not progressing on schedule, James Moore, the first and only African American to head the Office of the National Archives, asked me if I had any ideas about facilitating the process. I suggested that the guide be divided into civilian and military record groups. In 1978 I was assigned to prepare the guide to black history materials among civilian records groups.

By this time I realized that the scope of information was enormous. I had literally watched archivists perish in the stacks under mountains of note cards as they unsuccessfully attempted to put together guides of great magnitude and detail. I attempted to focus on a description process that was both doable within a few years and useful not only to the subject expert but to the general researcher, as well. However, I was clear about two things: I could not search through every box in the archives, and I could not hope to describe every document or even every series that included black history materials.

I decided to consume the elephant one bite at a time. I systematically went to each civilian division, looked through the finding aids for each record group, followed up on any leads I found there, and interviewed staff members. Where indexes existed, I checked under Afro, African, Black, Colored, Haiti, Liberia, Negro, and the names of famous individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington as well as the names of historically black colleges and universities such as Howard, Bethune-Cookman, Hampton, and Tuskegee.

I was instructed to describe materials first at the record group and then at the series level. A sample entry included the record group number and title (e.g., RG 208, Records of the Office of War Information); the series title, dates, volume, and arrangement (e.g., Miscellaneous Records of the Advertising and Intelligence Division of the Office of Facts and Figures, 1941–42, 5 feet, arranged chronologically); and finally a description of the pertinent black history materials in the series. This final part—the description of black history materials—was my most original contribution to the guide. The other parts of the description were generally culled from existing finding aids and guides, including the excellent Guide to Federal Archives Relating to Africa (1977) by Aloha South.

Each time I prepared a description, I submitted a copy to the archivist in charge for any additions and corrections. I then added the approved (or at least unprotested) description to a three-ring binder that researchers could use. I felt that the users' ability to understand what I was doing was crucial. If they were regularly using the draft, pertinent questions should arise while the guide was still in progress. Archival guides had caused a great deal of trouble when both researchers and archivists found themselves unable to locate described materials. I also decided to arrange the guide in numerical order by record group and include information about still pictures, motion pictures, sound recordings, maps, and other related materials. I realized that the final product would not include everything in the National Archives relating to black history, but it would provide more research potential in the field than any one dedicated individual could hope to exhaust in a lifetime. That satisfied me.

At the same time that the guide was in process, I was pursuing my doctorate in African history at Howard University. Consequently, I spent about ten months away from the guide while I was researching in Africa and writing my dissertation at the Library of Congress. I progressed on both the guide and the dissertation through 1983 and began the final editing of my dissertation about black women and the American Colonization Society in 1984.

At the National Archives, my supervisor, Virginia Purdy, and editor, Shelby Bale, labored with me through the editorial process on the guide. I was also an active participant in the publication process. We chose photographs for illustrations, reviewed ideas for cover and page designs, oversaw the indexing, and decided on a workable title. It seemed to me that I was out-voted a lot in these matters, but since the publications staff was not tampering with the text itself, I was content.

The guide appeared in October 1984 in time for me to take it to the National Archives exhibit booth at the meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. One month later, toward the end of November, I successfully defended my dissertation. The two achievements were deeply satisfying. I had learned a great deal about African American history, and I had found an effective means of sharing that information with others interested in African American history and culture.

The guide generally received excellent reviews. A lengthy one by Thomas Battle, the director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, published in the American Archivist (1983, 49: 323-325), provides a brief history of finding aids relating to black history at the National Archives. He said the guide "produced a work that fills a gap in the bibliographic resources available for research on black Americans." He saw it as a "welcome, if long overdue contribution to black historiography."

The National Archives sponsored a gala book party for Black History in February 1985 to which staff, scholars, and researchers were invited. Additionally, the guide received the Finding Aid Award from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference and the C.F.W. Coker Finding Aid Award from the Society of American Archivists. I was most pleased by accolades from my peers but almost equally gratified that researchers found (and continue to find) the guide user-friendly.

The family of C.F.W. ("Fred") Coker, a former National Archives employee who left to work at the Library of Congress but died of cancer soon thereafter, had endowed the prize. Because of Coker's work at the Library of Congress, the Manuscript Division staff was interested in the deliberations for the Coker Prize. This was providential for me because Sylvia Lyons Render, the division's black history specialist, had resigned due to illness, and the division was seeking someone to fill her position. I was hired in October 1986 and remained in that position until January 1995. During my tenure at the Library of Congress, I was the editor of The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture (1993). Although many people discussed the 1984 guide with me over the next decade or so, only once did I get a call from a frustrated archivist asking me were to find something. That was a triumph for me. I wanted my descriptions to be useful totally apart from my presence. A few times researchers would contact me to let me know that they had found something that I had not. Since 1995 I have been working as a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where I teach African and African American history as well as archival theory and public history.

Nevertheless, my passion for subject access to records has not cooled. As a matter of fact, with the age of digitization upon us, I remain increasingly hopeful that more and more subject access will be provided for the collections at the National Archives and elsewhere. I would be delighted to know that some electronic genius had scanned the contents of the 1984 guide and placed them online. Then, an editor could be assigned to receive updated black history information from staff members who are processing new accessions or describing older collections. The editor is crucial to ensuring that updates to the computer guide will be consistent and adequately descriptive. If the guide could actually be printed upon request for interested researchers, it would be an even greater boon for those who do not enjoy hours before the computer screen.

Researchers and professional associations need to be important allies of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) before the Congress and in other arenas. I believe that these scholars reap the benefits of our national records most richly when they can be accessed by subject. Although I am aware that resources are getting increasingly scanty and staff members are often doing double duty, I still believe that access should remain a priority consideration at NARA.


1. The proceedings of this June 4–5, 1973, conference were edited by Robert L. Clarke and published by Howard University in 1981. The volume is entitled Afro-American History: Sources for Research (1981) and includes essays by Alex Haley, James Walker, John Blassingame, Herbert Gutman, Harold Pinkett, Okon Uya, Barry Crouch, and others.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.