Prologue Magazine

Institutions of Memory and the Documentation of African Americans in Federal Records

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

By Walter B. Hill, Jr.


The use of federal records for historical research in the post–World War II era broadened the parameters in the writing of American history. They have not only widened our perspectives regarding American history but also enhanced existing nonfederal sources on the unfolding of this history. The use of federal records in African American historical research can be directly traced to the establishment of the National Archives and the work of the American Council for Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). As the National Archives evolved into an institution that created and maintained its own archival systems, it became increasingly apparent that federal records contained an enormous amount of information on African Americans. In time, scholars in pursuit of new resources for historical research would find the records of the National Archives extremely valuable as they sought to explore and expand the horizons of Afro-American history.

In June of 1973 the National Archives sponsored a conference entitled "Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans." This two-day meeting was the twelfth in a series of conferences on the use of federal resources for researching and writing American history and examining many areas of archives relevant to African American historical research. The conference presenters were an impressive group of published academic scholars and staff archivists. The panels addressed the following issues: the nature of federal archives, using archival sources for Afro-American research, the multipurposes of federal archives, social history based on federal archives, projects and related records. A concluding session assessed the value of federal archives to historical research with particular attention given to African Americans. The National Archives published the proceedings of the conference in a volume entitled Afro-American History: Sources for Research.(1)

The conference came at a fertile time in the development of African American historical research and writing. During the 1970s and 1980s, several factors were emerging in the field of Afro-American history. Universities and colleges were establishing Afro-American studies programs and departments as legitimate components of higher education in response to the demands of black students and the increasing interest of young scholars seeking to establish their specialty. In addition, during this time many scholars were reexamining and questioning standard interpretations of American and African American histories. Revisionist scholars used different methodologies, raised new questions, and sought to redefine history by incorporating heretofore unexplored groups, topics, and issues. Quantification and social history consumed scholars as they looked for new sources to examine. Race, class, gender, and culture emerged as the central focus, and the outpouring of studies covering these topics testified to the prodigious work ethic of this generation of young scholars. Afro-American historical research benefitted enormously from these developments.

Despite this modern growth of interest, the study of Afro-American history had nineteenth-century roots. To assess the evolution of the researching, writing, publishing, and teaching of African American history, we must first recognize these roots. Several trained and untrained black historians in the last quarter of the nineteenth century took on the responsibility of researching and writing the history of "the Negro." They depended on manuscript collections, diaries, newspaper and local government accounts, literary works, and personal accounts to write this history. While the American Negro Academy (1897) sponsored forums for discussions of literary and social class issues affecting African Americans, it also included the dissemination of Afro-American history as part of its agenda.(2) With the establishment of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 and the opening of the National Archives in 1934, the scholarly character of African American history ascended to a new and different plateau.

Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, possessed an intense devotion and passion to promote Negro history to counteract the misrepresentation of African Americans in American society. He believed, as did many African American scholars and writers of his day, that serious scholarly researching, publishing, and teaching of Negro history would give credence to the contributions of blacks, thus gaining some measure of respect from white Americans. In subsequent years, Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History (1916) to present scholarly articles, the Associated Publishers, Inc. (1920) to publish the works of scholars writing Negro history, and the Negro History Bulletin (1937), which published short historical features for classroom teachers. These proved to be effective vehicles for disseminating information on African Americans and revealing the deep-rootedness of African American history in American society. Woodson also created public forums to highlight Negro history by holding annual meetings at historically black colleges and universities, and in 1926 he inaugurated "Negro History Week." Armed with these tools, Woodson and the ASNLH rose to dominate the field of Negro history.

Shortly after the National Archives opened, the ASNLH held its twenty-second annual meeting in 1937 in Washington, D.C., at Garnet-Patterson High School. At this meeting, James Mock and Carl Lokke of the National Archives participated in a session entitled, "Documenting the History of the Negro." Mock's paper, "The National Archives with Respect to the Records of the Negro," was perhaps the first formal and significant statement regarding federal records and Afro-American history. He opened his remarks by stating that "materials dealing with the Negro are to be found in the records of every department of the government." This was a provocative statement, indeed, for 1937 because at that time the new institution had not yet fully developed the intellectual control over records to adequately describe their contents with certainty.

In the first decade of its existence, the National Archives put in place the archival programs that would carry out its mission as the repository of federal records. Numerous problems plagued the procedures established by the Division of Cataloging for cataloging and identifying records.(3) The staff worked to attain administrative and intellectual controls over all the records, established arrangement and descriptive standards, and developed a standard finding aids system. Despite difficulties encountered along the way, Mock clearly identified the functions of numerous departments and the records they created that contained documentation of African Americans. He cautioned, however, that while these records were important to the study of African Americans and other Americans, they had not been created for this purpose. Rather, they had been created in the course of routine governmental business. Researchers therefore might have to review volumes of bureaucratic records in order to find documents that contained information they sought. He ended his presentation on an additional cautionary, but promising, note. He pointed out that the daunting tasks of collecting, describing, and arranging records to meet the reference needs of scholars and the public would take time, and any expectations that this would be immediately accomplished was foolhardy. Nevertheless, he envisioned the National Archives as "the repository of documents revealing every phase of daily life in connection with which there is a federal department or in which the Federal Government has a paramount interest."(4)

Other organizations also singled out African Americans for study. In 1940 the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) pursued a program that involved the research and study of African Americans. D. H. Daugherty, secretary of the ACLS, recognized the unique status and cultural distinctiveness of African Americans in the United States. He felt that "studies of the Negro" should perhaps "be singled out for special consideration because of the cultural patterns he has developed in a variety of environments."(5) Recent research and perspectives on blacks inspired the ACLS to support more efforts to uncover the transformation of Africans in the Western Hemisphere, notably in the United States. New approaches to cultural examinations, in particular anthropology and social psychology, compelled the ACLS to sponsor a conference on the study of blacks. Daugherty and the ACLS were concerned about the lack of information regarding the significant advances that had occurred in the study of blacks, the failure of scholars of various disciplines to cooperate and collaborate on the research of African Americans, limited and biased sources, the use of outdated research methods, and the social barriers that hindered the work of black scholars. They believed these elements combined to inhibit a balanced and objective synthesis of African American historical research.

The interest in African American historical research in federal records surged forward in the decade of the 1940s. On March 29 and 30, 1940, the ACLS convened a small number of prominent scholars in Washington, D.C., at Howard University. These scholars, who represented a variety of fields, gathered to discuss, examine, and exchange information concerning the current state of African American historical research and also to suggest ways to advance and improve research methods. Among the many recommendations proposed by the conference to the ACLS was the establishment of a focus group to make recommendations on improving the quantity and quality of sources for African American historical sources and guiding scholarly research on African Americans. Desiring to execute the recommendations of the conference, the ACLS established the Committee on Negro Studies in 1941. The ACLS charged the group with the responsibility for the "recovery and preservation of the history of the Negro in the Western Hemisphere" (including the study of Negro literature, art, and speech) and to identify and study the Negro's African origins and background. The committee met annually and recommended and outlined projects to accomplish its mission.(6)

The Committee on Negro Studies proposed a series of publications and approached the National Archives at the conclusion of the World War II to undertake a survey of records relative to the Negro. The committee believed federal records were valuable sources for information on the Negro and felt that researchers lacked knowledge of these sources. Solon Buck, Archivist of the United States, reviewed the proposal and agreed to move forward on the project.(7) Led by Paul Lewinson, director of the Industrial Records Office, the survey staff compiled the first publication that highlighted a description of records relative to African Americans, A Guide to Documents in the National Archives for Negro Studies. The ACLS published the guide in 1947.

During the 1940s, the use of National Archives records relative to blacks increased. Howard University developed an interest in federal records and undertook a long-term project to survey records in the National Archives relative to African Americans in World War II. The demands of African Americans for better treatment in civilian and military service during the war had an impact on the President and the Congress. While President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the defense industry, members of Congress sent their staffs to visit the National Archives seeking information on the employment of African American in the government during World War II.(8) The participation of African Americans in the war influenced Carter G. Woodson to invite Roland McConnell, a young African American employee of the National Archives (1943-1947), to prepare a paper for the 1949 annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson published the paper, "Importance of Records in the National Archives on the History of the Negro," in the Journal of Negro History (1949). McConnell concluded with and emphasized the fact that "practically every aspect of Federal-Negro relationship has been recorded and the records, in many cases down to near the present time, are in the National Archives and are available. The conviction is forced, therefore, that no objective or scientific history of the Negro, or of America, can be written without utilizing the records of the National Archives."(9)

The National Archives also collaborated with the Committee on Negro Studies and American University on a second publication project. Paul Lewinson and Ernst Posner of American University arranged for Elaine C. Bennett, a National Archives employee and American University student, to survey a special archives record series, the Committee for Congested Production Areas. Unlike the 1947 Guide to Documents, which covered a general description of records, the Calendar of Negro-Related Documents in the Records of the Committee for Congested Production Areas in the National Archives focused on one series of records that contained an abundance of materials relating to African Americans during World War II. The ACLS distributed the Calendar to institutions as a model for preparing their own archival holdings and in providing information on African Americans in their holdings to the Committee on Negro Studies.(10)

Institutional changes in the research field of African American history occurred as the nation moved into the decades of the 1950s. At its 1951 annual meeting, the Committee on Negro Studies voted to dissolve itself. They agreed to remain committed to the aims and mission of the committee but believed that its objectives could be accomplished through other ACLS devices. Although for ten years it had worked to further the study of African Americans, accomplished its publication projects, and worked with institutions that shared its belief regarding African American historical research, the committee ultimately concluded that it lacked the resources to keep up with the broadening spectrum of the study of African Americans. Members of the committee pledged to support the ACLS and made recommendations to guard against declining interest in the study of African Americans.(11)

The year 1951 also marked the Association for the Study of Negro Life and Life's first year without its founder, Carter G. Woodson, who died on April 3, 1950. Woodson had been the heart and soul of the organization, driving it to national recognition as the leader in Afro-American history. The absence of his stewardship and dominance severely affected the organization and structure of ASNLH and the direction of the writing and publishing of African American history.(12)

Despite the passing of the Committee on Negro Studies and Woodson, the study of African Americans moved forward, the ASNLH pressed on, and the National Archives continued to receive federal records that contained substantial documents on African Americans. By the 1960s the National Archives staff began to identify these records and undertook measures to create reference information papers, limited guides and publications, microfilm collections, and feature articles in Prologue that highlighted records relative to African Americans. Debra Newman's completion of Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records (1985) underscored the depth and breadth of material relative to African Americans. This issue of Prologue recognizes the importance and relevancy of federal records for African American historical research and the contribution of these institutions of memory: the National Archives, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Committee on Negro Studies, and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Archivists and scholars will discuss a variety of federal records that construct histories and images of African Americans. The work of Woodson and ASNLH and the Committee on Negro Studies and ACLS laid important groundwork for modern scholars and writers seeking information on African Americans in federal records; this special issue of Prologue continues this tradition.


1. Robert L. Clarke, ed. Afro-American History: Sources for Research (1981).

2. Earl E. Thorpe, Black Historians: A Critique (1971); Elliott Rudwick and August Meier, Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980 (1986); Alfred A. Moss, Jr., The American Negro Academy: Voices of the Talented Tenth (1981).

3. Lisha Penn, "Descriptive Practices at the National Archives: Past, Present, and Future" (CIDS paper, National Archives and Records Administration, 1991); Rodney A. Ross, "The National Archives of the United States: The Formative Years, 1934–1949," Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 16 (Summer 1984): 107–123.

4. James R. Mock, "The National Archives with Respect to the Records of the Negro," Journal of Negro History 23 (January 1938): 49–56.

5. American Council of Learned Societies, Bulletin 32 (September 1941): 3.

6. ACLS, Bulletin, for the years 1941 through 1951. The committee reported its annual meetings and all planned projects in the Bulletin.

7. Thirteenth Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States, year ending June 30, 1947 (1948), p. 20. Lewinson also served on the Committee for Negro Studies.

8. Fourteenth Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States, year ending June 30, 1948 (1949), p. 29; Fifteenth Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States, year ending June 30, 1949 (1950), p. 26.

9. Roland McConnell, "Importance of Records in the National Archives on the History of the Negro," Journal of Negro History 34 (April 1949): 135–152.

10. ACLS, Bulletin 43 (September 1950): 45. I am indebted to Maryellen Trautman, National Archives Library, for locating the publication.

11. ACLS, Bulletin 44 (September 1951): 41–42.

12. In a recent address at Howard University, February 1996, John Hope Franklin, a contemporary of Woodson, spoke at the ASNLH's Black History Luncheon. He remarked how the organization suffered with the death of Woodson and what it should do to revive the vibrancy it once held.


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