Post contributed by Laurin Penland, Library Assistant for Rubenstein Technical Services
For someone like me who studied Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness in school, the Congo River can play an outsized role in my imagination as a place of brutal Western imperialism. So, you can imagine, how, when I was carefully paging through a diary from 1852 for a ship named the Mary Adeline, I froze in a moment of recognition upon seeing the words, “I was in the Congo River 12 days, during which time got ashore Shark’s Point. Was attacked by the savages, defended the vessel successfully and was eventually got off by … [the] steamer ‘Firefly’ and schooner ‘Dolphin.’”
This ship’s diary was written almost forty years before Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, during a time when enslavers were still abducting people from Africa and selling them if not legally, then illegally, especially to countries in South America (by that time many countries, including the US, had outlawed the transatlantic slave trade). The diary was kept by a man named Appleton Oaksmith—captain of the Mary Adeline—and though he does not mention enslaving people in the diary, I was suspicious. I wanted to know what he was doing in the Congo River and why he was “attacked.” So, I began to do more research.
First, I should provide a little more context. This diary was donated to the library as an addition to the Appleton Oaksmith papers, which the Rubenstein has held since 1937. The library had previously borrowed the diary in the 1950s so that it could be microfilmed. And now, decades later, the owners of the physical diary decided to donate it to the Rubenstein. It’s part of my job in the library to process new additions to collections, and this addition of the diary led me to try and discover what exactly the diary was about and how I might add it to the existing collection.
I did not know much about Oaksmith. In our online catalog, the description of Oaksmith stated merely that he was an “adventurer, author, ship owner, and industrial promoter of Hollywood, N.C.” A quick Google search for Oaksmith led me to think that “adventurer” was at best a polite euphemism and at worst a papering-over of the history of illegal slave trading. Here is one of the first entries I found about Oaksmith and his ship, the Mary Adeline:
“The U.S. brig Mary Adeline departed from Rio de Janeiro in April 1852 destined for the coast of Angola. After having been visited by the British steamship Fire Fly investigating evidence of slave trading, the Mary Adeline ran aground on a sandbar at Shark’s Point near the mouth of the Congo River. Within hours an estimated fifteen hundred to three thousand Africans attacked the boat. They used muskets, spears, oars, and cutlasses as weapons, along with hooks and poles to climb the side of the ship. The small crew of the Mary Adeline fought back by shooting a six-pound cannon that killed several of the Africans…. News of the battle spread quickly. Couriers capable of running fifty to sixty miles a day surely carried this information along the African coast. Inhabitants of Salvador learned of the attack after the return of the Mary Adeline to Salvador in late July. A planned attack by Africans of a slaving vessel helped to convince Bahians and foreigners resident in Salvador that a resumption of the slave trade would pose significant and unwanted risks.”
This passage is from Dale Torston Graden’s monograph, From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil, Bahia, 1835-1900. Graden’s description of the battle in the Congo River suggests two important points: 1) It is likely that Oaksmith was attempting to enslave West Africans, and 2) the attack played a significant role in limiting or ending the slave trade in Brazil. If these things were true, why did previous archivists describe Oaksmith as an “adventurer” and not as an enslaver?
This question sent me searching our digitized collection of the Rubenstein’s old card catalog. This is often the first place I look when trying to find more information about collections that the library has held for a long time, given that sometimes, descriptions in the old card catalog were never migrated to the online catalog due to length, complexity, or outdated language. The old card files on Oaksmith included a long biographical sketch. The writer of the description chose to describe the battle on the Congo River through the lens of the crew members of the Dolphin who helped Oaksmith escape. According to the Dolphin, Oaksmith fought “gallantly” against “3000 natives who had assembled for the purpose of plundering [the Mary Adeline’s] valuable cargo.” Later, the card file mentions that Oaksmith was indicted for slave trading, that he escaped from jail, and that he was eventually pardoned by President Grant. I was confused by the card file and by our online description, especially in juxtaposition to other scholarship that I found online. Was Oaksmith on the Congo River to enslave people? What was his valuable cargo? Why was he attacked? If he was eventually indicted, when was he convicted? How should I change the description of Oaksmith in the online catalog?
“[In 1852] the British Prime Minister to Brazil, Henry Southern, wrote to the foreign office about indications that the US vessels Mary Adeline and Camargo were being prepared to engage in the slave trade. ‘Mr. Marsden, a broker in Rio, a citizen of the United States,’ continued Southern, ‘is the party who is actively interested in getting up and aiding these speculations.’”
Later in 1852, the Camargo “disembarked 500 slaves at Bracuhy, south of Rio de Janeiro.” Marsden was jailed but was eventually freed. The captain of the Camargo, Nathaniel Gordon, escaped from Brazil, but was hung ten years later in the United States for slave trading. (Gordon is the only person in US history to have been executed for the crime of slave trading; his conviction and hanging are largely credited to the politics of that moment with the start of the Civil War and the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency.) The last place that Gordon abducted West Africans was at Shark’s Point on the Congo River, the same place that Oaksmith had run aground years earlier. And as for Marsden, after he was released from jail, he went on to be involved with a New York shipping company that was caught trafficking enslaved people to Cuba. Oaksmith also had significant ties to Cuba: his brother Sidney lived there, and Oaksmith himself was perhaps best known by historians as an ardent supporter of William Walker who “planned to establish a Central American empire that would ultimately include Spanish Cuba.”
It turns out that there is a copious amount of scholarship on Oaksmith and the illegal slave traders of his time. While I have not yet determined with certainty the purpose of Oaksmith’s journey to the Congo River in 1852 aboard the Mary Adeline and the reasons for the battle that ensued, I found historical evidence for his later attempts at slave trading, thus justifying two changes in the collection description: mentioning in the online catalog that Oaksmith was indicted for outfitting the slave ship Augusta in 1861 and finally convicted for outfitting the slave ship Margaret Scott in 1862, and adding “Slave trade – United States – 19th century” as a subject heading. I also decided to remove the word “adventurer” from his biographical description, lest it glorify the horrors of the slave trade and chattel slavery. The Appleton Oaksmith papers have also been added to a list of collections to which Rubenstein archivists hope to return, down the road, so that we can provide more detailed and just description. This is one of many legacy collections at the Rubenstein that deserve to be reprocessed and re-described so that we can better document the history of slavery and redress archival errors, silences, omissions, and erasures.
As for the ship’s diary that inspired this blog post, it has finally joined the rest of Oaksmith’s papers at the Rubenstein Library and will be requestable in the reading room once the library has reopened.
 Dale Torston Graden, From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil, Bahia, 1835-1900 (Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, 2006), 8.
 Card catalog entry for the Appleton Oaksmith Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Post contributed by Laurin Penland, Library Assistant for Technical Services
Warning: Some of the language in this blog post is outdated and considered offensive today. There are also descriptions of violence against African Americans in the South during Reconstruction.
The way in which archivists think about Reconstruction (1865-1877) in the United States can sometimes determine how we describe and interpret materials produced during that period. For example, if you believe that Reconstruction was an ill-fated, corrupt takeover of the South by Northern Republicans—a brief episode doomed to fail—then it makes sense that you would describe a Republican politician in Georgia as self-interested. The particular politician that I have in mind is John Emory Bryant (1836-1900), who was born in Maine, fought for the Union, and pursued a Republican political career in Georgia after the Civil War. Bryant was also an abolitionist, teacher, agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, newspaper editor and publisher, and lawyer. The Rubenstein Library holds his papers, the bulk of which were acquired in 1968 (a later addition arrived in 2002). His papers came up recently as a candidate for re-processing due to their popularity among researchers, the aging folders and worn-out boxes housing the collection, and the fact that there were many voices within the collection that could benefit from updated description in the online collection guide. Also, when we investigated further, it became clear that there was a large discrepancy between what was described in the old paper catalog and the online collection guide. The original card catalog entry included 50 cards of description! And the online collection guide included only two small paragraphs. Sometimes this discrepancy happens because of the way the library managed the mass migration of our collection guides online; description was simplified. And sometimes this happens when the description was viewed as problematic for some reason. For the JEB papers, the discrepancy in descriptions could have been for multiple reasons. My task was to assess the description that was available to me and to do my best to improve the collection guide, a process which inspired me to think about how archivists and researchers interpret and describe materials from the Reconstruction Era. This process ultimately led me to edit descriptions of JEB and to make sure that the voices of people of color where discoverable in the collection.
To get an idea of how JEB papers were originally described, here is an unflattering snippet about Bryant from the old card catalog:
On January 1, 1862, Bryant made a significant statement to Emma [his future wife]. He refers to his “enemies,” who are again conspiring against him. He has been under arrest for stealing from a Negro, a charge which was dismissed later. He says he will come out on top, as he always looks out for ‘no. 1.’ This glimpse of his personality is prophetic for the career he later entered.
The description portrays Bryant (JEB) as contentious, selfish, and possibly corrupt; the description also gives weighty significance to this episode in JEB’s life by suggesting that it illustrates an important aspect of his personality and the foundation for his political career. I think it’s also important to note that JEB was accused of stealing from a black person, which, if true, would do significant harm to any claims of integrity he might have had in fighting for the civil and political rights of African Americans.
Why did the previous cataloger of this collection choose to highlight this episode in Bryant’s life? One reason could be because of popular notions about Reconstruction during the 1960s—for example, the cataloger, expecting to find a corrupt carpetbagger, could have been drawn to troublesome moments in JEB’s life and career. After all, JEB was no stranger to conflict and controversy in both public and private affairs. In her book, Carpetbagger of Conscience: A Biography of John Emory Bryant, Ruth Currie-McDaniel probes JEB’s life and career, wading through many of his successes, failures, flaws, and contradictions in order to try to discern what kind of Republican he really was. Currie-McDaniel comes down on the side that JEB was a staunch supporter and fighter for civil rights for African Americans; he was also “a complicated mixture of idealistic reform zeal on the one hand and a certain selfish realism on the other,” as well as being a neglectful husband. To say the least, JEB was a complicated person, and the letters that he left behind tell of a controversial personality.
Eric Foner, who is one of the most well-known Reconstruction scholars and who is heavily inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois wrote “Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880,” published in 1935), lays out an understanding of Reconstruction in which
the [Republican] Radicals in Congress were acquitted of both vindictive motives and the charge of serving as the stalking-horses of Northern capitalism. They emerged instead as idealists in the best nineteenth-century reform tradition…. Their Reconstruction policies were based on principle, not petty political advantage, for the central issue dividing [President] Johnson and these Radical Republicans was the civil rights of freedmen.
Foner writes that a key element of this understanding of Reconstruction, which is very different than the one depicted by previous historians such as William Dunning and films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, is the “testimony of the central participant in the drama of Reconstruction—the black freedman.” While John Emory Bryant was an important player in Republican politics during Reconstruction in the South, I took Foner’s depiction to heart and shifted my gaze beyond JEB’s voice and actions alone. Who were these black freedmen that Foner mentions, and what is their testimony from the Reconstruction Era? This blog post is an exploration of the African-American voices found within the JEB papers.
Daniel Broomfield: School Teacher in Warrenton, Georgia
Scattered throughout the JEB papers, there are myriad portrayals of black people fighting for a better life (and sometimes fighting just to live) by participating in civic, educational, religious, and political organizations. In 1866, one school teacher, who recently built a small schoolhouse, writes to report being shot at:
William John Spence came to the school house last Monday evening just after I had turned out and shot two balls through the house, he then shot three times at me as I run. I only built a small house, I was not able to build a very large one, I done the best I could. I had a good many scholars spelling and reading. I reported to the Bureau here but to very little effect did it take.
This kind of terroristic violence is documented throughout the John Emory Bryant collection, perhaps most strikingly in a deposition describing KKK activity in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia in the 1870s. The African-American victims listed in the document are: Edward Thompson and his wife in Florida; Boss Fullard, Gamble Wright, and John Askie in Dublin, Georgia; and George Daymond in Montgomery County, Georgia. The atrocities recounted in the deposition paint a picture of white-supremacist terror. We do not know the author of the deposition, but for those who are interested in this account and the efforts to hold the perpetrators of terror and violence responsible, we have another collection at the library that has more information. The Williams Woods Holden Papers, 1834-1929, document the life of a “journalist and Republican governor of North Carolina…. He was elected governor as a Republican in 1868, but was impeached by the Democratic state legislature in 1870 for his efforts to combat the Ku Klux Klan.”
Henry McNeal Turner: Republican Leader, Preacher, Post Master General, and Bishop
In the midst of violence, terror, and constant, ever-present racism (including both hate-filled and less incendiary paternalistic propaganda), black freedmen (formerly enslaved people) and black people who were born free pushed full-steam ahead. The same year that the school teacher, Broomfield, writes to report the assault against him, Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) writes a series of letters to JEB. Turner was a chaplain during the Civil War and went on to become a black Republican leader, legislator, preacher, Post Master of Georgia, and bishop in the African Methodist Church. He writes his letters to Bryant while enduring loss and illness in his family; one of Turner’s children had just died and his wife was gravely ill, yet Turner pushed on for Republican causes. He writes to JEB about political news, updates him on his efforts to get subscribers to their Republican newspaper, tells of his hopes for the Georgia legislature, and strategizes ways to inform black citizens about new laws: “Major General Howard at my suggestion is going to print copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil Rights Bill etc. for general distribution through the South for the colored people. I told him there should be thousands of copies distributed like tracts.” When Turner tries to get Democrats to subscribe to his Republican newspaper, he says, “The few democrats that are here, with whom I have come in contact, treat me very scornfully. They say I aught not to speak of those outrages. But the Republicans have assured me, that Mr. Johnson shall execute that civil rights bill or leave his seat. They also say there is more on hand, when they get ready to enforce it, and they will do it.” The Civil Rights Act about which Turner is writing was passed on April 9, 1866 (three days before Turner’s letter). This act provided:
that all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.
The law was passed, vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, and then passed again with a two-thirds majority. In another letter, Turner offers aid to JEB, who, he has heard, has been arrested and whose paper was suppressed. He writes, “If you are in great need, write to Oliver Sanders of Columbus, Ga. I helped them to organize a society there, and they have some money, which they will send you as quick as lighting if you need it.” Turner’s letters show someone who was deeply engaged in the issues of the time, made personal sacrifices to fight for what he believed in, and cared for his friend and colleague, JEB.
Charles R. Edwardes: Preacher and Labor Organizer
One of the common threads that connects several of the people in the Bryant papers is the importance of newspapers. JEB, along with Turner and William Anderson Pledger (who I’ll mention later), published Republican newspapers, which allowed them to share their ideas more widely and broaden their connections throughout Georgia. One African-American minister, Charles R. Edwardes, writes to JEB in 1869 to tell him about his efforts to get more subscribers for Bryant’s newspaper, and to inform Bryant of a meeting—of the Colored Men of the Mechanics and Laboring Men Association—that he would like to be mentioned in the newspaper. Edwardes reports that there are 87 members of the Association and that he hopes they will have many more members soon. At the meeting, the men counted how much land they had purchased, how many crops they had produced, and how much money they had made as tradesmen. Edwardes explains, “We wants to buy land as soon as we can to give homes to our poor peoples for many don’t [have] homes and land to work and cheated out what money works for. I have some promise to take your paper. I will do all I can to have this paper among my people. Do what you can for us.” 
William Anderson Pledger: Teacher, Republican, Lawyer, Newspaper Publisher
My Dear Sir: The schools of this county being in the hands of the Democrats and they having such an avowed hatred to me till it has become impossible for me to obtain employment. Their hatred is because of my Republican principles, or because that I speak them freely—yet moderately. Consequently I must have recourse to my Republican friends to obtain a livelihood: to you I look as a very dear friend, because you know the privations an active Republican is subjected….
This letter is written by William Anderson Pledger, who was a prominent black Republican in Georgia. He was also an editor, teacher, and friend of JEB. Pledger’s letter press copybook (dated 1875-1879) includes faint copies of letters written to various Georgian politicians and Republicans, including John Emory Bryant, Henry McNeal Turner, E.R. Belcher, Benjamin Conly, Henry Farrow, M.T. Ackerman, and others. Many of the letters show his urgent attempts to attain employment and describe the discrimination that he faced due to his Republican political activities. In a different letter, he writes, “The Democrats have offered me if I would only leave off indoctrinating ‘radicalism’ into the negros’ [sic] heads that they would put at my disposal any position I wanted. You know I can not go back on Republicanism though I perish from this uncivilized conduct.”
Pledger’s letters and scrapbook also show his engagement with social and political organizations, such as the Grand Fountain of Georgia (also referred to as the “colored Good Templars”), a black temperance organization. Pledger was the Grand Worthy Master of the State in Georgia in 1876 and was credited with increasing the membership from 2000 to 8000. These types of fraternal organizations were often at the heart of segregation battles that would go on to define the Jim Crow South. In a newspaper clipping, Pledger writes to the editor about a dispute within the Grand Fountain between the white and “colored” lodges, and he explains how the matter has been settled in his favor by the organization’s supreme court in England. Another clipping from 1878 describes “Emancipation Day,” which “was held in the First Congregational Church on Collins Street on Tuesday night, January 1st to celebrate the anniversary of Emancipation.” There, the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud and speeches were given, including one by Pledger. It is clear that Pledger was highly active in the public sphere. In The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, author Donald Grant describes Pledger as being at the center of Republican politics: “he was a delegate to every Republican national convention from 1876 to 1900 and remained on the state Republican committee until his death in 1904.” In 1879, “smoldering black resentment against the white leadership of the Republican party resulted in a revolt by the blacks, who elected a new state committee of twenty-four blacks and eight whites. Black leader William A. Pledger led the revolt and replaced John E. Bryant as party chairman.” During this period of Reconstruction, there was an internal struggle in the Republican Party against the lily-whites (those who wanted all-white leadership) and the black-and-tans (a coalition of blacks and whites). Three years after Pledger was elected chairman, he was “ousted” and “replaced by a white, Alfred E. Buck.” Another important shift during this time was African-American disenfranchisement. During this moment in Reconstruction, black voting and participation were at their height: “In 1876, 53 percent of the eligible black males voted. The white vote was only slightly higher.” However, due to poll taxes, the Populist defeat, the lack of secrecy of ballots, the barring of black voters from primaries (called the “white primary”), intimidation and violence, and other disenfranchising efforts, black voting hit its nadir in Georgia in 1904 at 4 percent.
Pledger was also a journalist and newspaper publisher. He founded The Athens Blade in 1879 “with the credo: ‘The Arm of justice Cannot—Will not Sleep,’” and he was very engaged in the debates of the time, such as the plan for African Americans to emigrate to Liberia. Pledger also helped organize the Afro-American League (which later became the Afro-American Council) in 1890 in Chicago, and he was known for fighting against lynching. He “once led armed blacks to the Athens jail and successfully defied a mob bent on lynching two prisoners.”
Altogether, Pledger’s papers show someone who seized upon the political momentum of the time to fight for a Republican platform that was built on equal rights for African Americans.
As archivists, when we preserve, organize, and describe manuscript collections, sometimes it is tempting to try to decide whether someone like John Emory Bryant did more good in the world than harm. To complicate matters, it is unclear how much significance to attribute to the correspondence, ephemera, and artifacts left behind by historical figures (e.g., we wonder whether these papers represent the whole person). In this case, widening my gaze beyond John Emory Bryant to his broader context and networks helped me address the issues at the center of this collection of papers, such as the Republican social and political fabric during Reconstruction, and, in particular, it illuminated the testimony of those fighting for equal rights, especially people of color. To give credit where credit is due, much of the work to describe this collection had been done by previous catalogers and researchers. My work benefited from the detailed description in the old card catalog, which highlighted contributions by Pledger, Turner, and others. In my revised collection guide, I built on the work that came before me, updated the language, and edited out descriptions that may have tried to pigeon hole Bryant as a self-interested Carpetbagger. Most importantly, widening my view helped me to make choices in my description of the collection, ultimately placing less focus on Bryant’s eccentricities and more focus on making a variety of voices discoverable. For instance, previously, the KKK disposition had been relegated to a “Miscellaneous” folder and was not described. Now, it has its own folder and is discoverable in the collection guide. This is not to say that now—fifty years after we acquired this collection—the description is finally complete. It can always be improved; and perhaps fifty years from now, archivists and researchers will take a new approach to this collection.
As an addendum, I would like to address the fact that all of the people mentioned in this blog post are men. John Emory Bryant, while being a supporter of equal rights for men of color, did not support women’s suffrage or equal rights for women. However, there is copious correspondence in the collection between Bryant and his wife, Emma Spaulding Bryant, which is deserving of a blog post of its own. Emma Bryant often pushed back against ideas of male dominance and superiority. We have digitized a small portion of her correspondence that documents a particularly passionate response to John, who apparently objected to Emma seeing a male doctor about “uterine difficulties” without John’s permission or presence. Thanks to historian Ruth Currie-McDaniel, you can find a published collection of Emma Spaulding Bryant’s correspondence in Duke Libraries’ general collection: Emma Spaulding Bryant: Civil War Bride, Carpetbagger’s Wife, Ardent Feminist.
Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist at the Rubenstein Library
Did you know that October is American Archives Month? During this time archivists and their allies take to social media and other outlets to raise public awareness about the importance of preserving the historical record. This year’s theme in North Carolina is “Activism and Social Justice in North Carolina.” To honor that theme, this post highlights an inspiring N.C. activist organization whose records are in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Officially founded in 1992 in Durham, N.C., Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) has brought college and high school students and farmworkers together to collectively work for economic justice, consumer awareness, and improved living and working conditions for people who grow and harvest our food.
The long arc of SAF’s activist work, which began in the 1970s, is well-represented in their archives in the Rubenstein library. The collection’s 148 boxes house materials documenting SAF’s founding, its operations, meetings, and planning, and records on every program from inception to launch. There are many photographs, audio, video, and, with the arrival of the 2000s, digital records.
College-age interns, many of them from farmworker families, travel to isolated rural migrant camps to document living conditions through photography, oral histories, and writing. Thousands of SAF student alumni have also gone out into the world to join and found other social justice programs and organizations.
Student projects such as this 2011 video documentary created by three students are housed in the SAF collection at the Rubenstein (student project folders require permission for access). Through Story+, a summer research internship sponsored by Duke University libraries and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, students have created several other SAF video documentaries.
An integral part of SAF’s work is educational programming and outreach for children, teens, and adults. In 2014, SAF’s Levante Leadership program was recognized as one of the most effective programs in the nation that improves educational outcomes for Latino students.
SAF also organized and participated in protest actions, including the Mount Olive Pickle Company and Burger King labor protests. These actions directly led to improved conditions in the factories and fields.
Did you know that many farmworkers are forced to live next to fields sprayed with pesticides? SAF has mounted successful long-term campaigns on specific issues such as pesticide safety that include outreach tools such as this video for children called “José Learns About Pesticides.”
Theater in the Fields brings a powerful message and educational opportunities to the fields where agricultural workers toil. The giant puppet “Big Papa” is also found in the SAF archives! The puppet was created by NC sculpture artist Daniel L. Mathewson (1964-2011) for the play “Gigantes en los Campos/Giants in the Fields,” written by NC writer Cara Page. The Big Papa character had few lines, but loomed ominously over scenes in the play as a method of intimidation and mockery of the farmworker characters.
The mobilization of students and farmworkers originally begun at Duke in the 1970s was in part inspired by a 1960 documentary by N.C. journalist Edward Murrow, “Harvest of Shame.” Today, the same labor, health, and social justice issues continue to plague the U.S. agriculture system, so Student Action with Farmworkers continues its work to improve conditions and to make their vision a reality, that “One day, all farmworkers will have dignity in their work and livelihood.”
During this Archives Month, we salute those who give so much of their energies to justice, and to those who recognize the importance of keeping this history alive in collective memory by placing their records in an archive.
The records of the Student Action with Farmworkers organization span the entirety of their history, and are available at the Rubenstein Library. Learn more by visiting the online collection guide.
To learn more about SAF, view this video. There are more videos on this site, many using archival resources from the collection to tell the farmworkers’ stories. Also, check out their 25th anniversary “More Than One Story” exhibit and web site.
Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist at the Rubenstein Library
“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Section 4
June 23, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of photographer William Gedney’s death in New York City in 1989 at the young age of 56. Gedney’s career spanned a time of great changes in American society and elsewhere, and in his photographs he captures the vitality and promise of those decades as well as the counterweights of social isolation and poverty. A lover of literature, he found early inspiration for his work in another New Yorker: Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Gedney was fascinated by people in all their complexity and was an exceptional portraitist, using his camera rather than a pen; like Whitman, he was especially drawn to street life and crowds. The full extent of Gedney’s preoccupation with Whitman can be more fully explored through the photographer’s archive; for now, this blog post will indicate some starting points in the collection.
Born in 1932, Gedney grew up in rural Greenville, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. As a child, his family took him to visit relatives in the big city, and ultimately he studied art at Pratt Institute and moved into a cold-water flat in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. While working as a commercial photographer to pay the bills and cover darkroom expenses, he roamed Brooklyn neighborhoods, his camera loaded with black-and-white film. Many of the images capture daily life and the inhabitants of Myrtle Avenue, where he lived. He continued this documentary work for the rest of his life.
In 1966, William Gedney’s photographic life took flight: he traveled to Kentucky (twice), cross country to California (also twice), then across the ocean to Ireland, England, Paris (twice again), and India, also twice. Brooklyn always drew him back.
Sometime around 1968 or 1969, perhaps inspired by Whitman’s interest in celebrating and documenting urban street life, he began a consuming project to uncover the history of Myrtle Avenue from its beginnings in the 18th century, using newspapers and literary sources, including the Brooklyn Eagle, for which Whitman served as editor, writing copious notes and pasting clippings in two volumes, Myrtle Avenue 1 and 2 – another habit he would continue throughout his life. Some of his notes include transcripts of Whitman poems:
At some point (probably earlier than 1969), he discovered that Walt Whitman had lived in Brooklyn, on 99 Ryerson Street, just a few blocks from Gedney’s neighborhood on Myrtle Avenue. While living at that address, Whitman published his ground-breaking epic poem Leaves of Grass in June 1855.
Although it’s not clear when the idea first came to him, in 1969 Gedney began to create the layout for a project to combine Whitman’s verses with his own photographs of New York City. In one of his notebooks, titled only with the year 1969, he writes about “the bridge” photographs, and of framing them with Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.”
A few months later, in the same notebook, Gedney writes “I think the bridge pictures would be best paired with Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry poem under the overall title ‘Brooklyn Crossing.’ His poem is the one I was most under the influence at the time.” The Brooklyn Bridge book maquette in the Gedney archive contains no accompanying texts; however, during the recent Rubenstein project to rehouse and digitize the Gedney archive, the lead archivist came across this item hiding out in a box of oversize materials:
Sometime around 1970, Gedney again turned to Whitman’s verses, this time selecting the poem “I wander all night in my vision” to introduce his planned book of night photographs taken in India. Clearly Whitman was still on his mind and informing his work.
I had thought Gedney’s connection to Whitman largely remained unexamined, with the exception of Margaret Sartor’s comments in her seminal book introducing Gedney and his archive to the world: What Was True: the Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (W.W. Norton, 2000). Then, while researching this blog post, I discovered Mark Turner’s book, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of NY and London (Reaktion Books: London, 2003), which in the context of the phenomenon of male cruising, discusses the remarkable parallels between Gedney and Whitman. The two clearly favored male liaisons, and this orientation was reflected to some degree in their poetic and artistic work. Beginning in 1975, Gedney began extensively documenting the exuberant gay pride parades as well as street hustlers in San Francisco and New York, until a few years before his death. At the same time, he was intensely private about his personal life, never fully coming out even to his closest friends.
“…as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering me the response of my own–these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.”
Walt Whitman, “Calamus 18”
Like William Gedney, Walt Whitman also celebrates an anniversary in 2019: he was born 200 years ago on May 31, 1819. Many events have been planned in his honor: http://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/
It’s easy to imagine that he would have been intrigued by Gedney’s photography and pleased at the idea of a publication of Brooklyn images prefaced by his own verses.
Sadly, it was not to be: Gedney bequeathed the world a body of compelling, eloquent photographic work, but his many book projects remained unpublished, with only the book maquettes in the archive as evidence of Gedney’s hopeful plans. Perhaps with the right editor, these two artists will be joined again as Gedney had imagined.
“These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)”
Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” stanza 4
Note about the Gedney Collection: Although William Gedney’s work was still largely undiscovered by mainstream audiences at the time of his death in 1989, it stood on the cusp of an awakening, thanks primarily to the efforts of close friends Maria and Lee Friedlander, and John Sarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Eventually the entire Gedney archive — over 49,000 photographs, negatives, artwork, and papers – came to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and is now being digitized in its entirety (the finished prints and contact sheets are already available online). You can learn more about the collection by visiting the collection guide online.
Post contributed by Meghan Lyon, Head of General Manuscript Processing at the Rubenstein Library
One of the Rubenstein Library’s older collections, the William T. Blackwell Papers, has recently grown thanks to a generous gift of 19th and 20th century papers and photographs from the Martin family, descendants of the Blackwell family. Before this latest addition, the William T. Blackwell Papers consisted almost exclusively of financial ledgers documenting the dramatic failure of the Bank of Durham, which opened in 1883, extended credit too liberally, and subsequently closed in 1889. This new addition has earlier material, documenting the rise of Blackwell’s fortune during the 1870s, as he and business partners James R. Day and Julian Shakespeare Carr built their factory, manufacturing and selling smoking tobacco through the W.T. Blackwell and Co Tobacco Company. The addition includes a notable cache of letters from Carr (yes, that Carr), documenting his and Blackwell’s partnership and their legal strategies during the Bull Durham trademark litigation through the 1870s.
These new records with the details of the W.T. Blackwell and Co. business operations would be exciting enough, but the rest of the addition is fascinating too. In fact, the nature of the collection has changed so significantly that we have opted to rename the collection to be the William T. Blackwell Family Papers. This better reflects the range of the materials now held – in addition to William T. Blackwell’s business materials, there is now correspondence, receipts, invoices, and other documentation of the daily life of the Blackwells, both W. T. and Emma Exum Blackwell, whom he married in 1877. W.T. Blackwell’s sister, Lavinia Blackwell, later married J.D. Pridgen, who owned a shoe company in Durham and whose daughters attended Durham High School in the early 1900s. Their scrapbooks, which include snapshots and printed ephemera from their social activities and education in local Durham schools, have amusing, endearing captions. Mary Blackwell Pridgen, one of the daughters, kept scrapbooking as an adult, and her later marriage to Chester B. Martin explains the inclusion of Martin family materials in this collection as well. In 1927, Chester B. Martin co-founded and operated Durham Dairy Products, Inc., which was Durham’s first milk delivery service. Materials from Durham Dairy include a nearly-complete run of company newsletters – Durham Dairy Doings – with great hand-drawn cartoons, profiles of staff and workers, local Durham news, and insights into the company’s marketing and delivery of milk. The multi-generational aspect of this collection has been challenging but fun to sort out – especially since it is all Durham history, and not just about tobacco (or banks!) anymore.
So far this academic year, Rubenstein librarians have taught 132 class sessions (though we won’t finalize these numbers until the end of the spring semester). You’d think that’d be enough to fill our time, but we’ve also been meeting monthly to discuss our individual teaching practices and how to improve our students’ experiences in our class sessions. We want to inspire confident special collections researchers for life!
Through our discussions, we realized that we often returned to couple of key points about archives and primary source research in our class sessions. We’d broach those points on an ad hoc basis as they arose in classes, but we wondered if starting our class sessions off with a shared understanding of those points would be useful, reassuring, and perhaps even empowering for our students.
We’ve followed the development of codes of ethics for different spaces and organizations within (and beyond) our profession and thought that model might also work for us. Early this semester, we drafted and began implementing what we’re calling our approach to classes at the Rubenstein Library. (“Code of ethics” seemed so heady that it might have the unfortunate effect of tamping down student engagement.) Here is what we developed:
Explore and be curious! Our class sessions are interactive, hands-on opportunities to look at lots of materials, so take advantage of this time. Challenge yourself to look (even briefly) at items that don’t initially catch your interest—you might be surprised at what you discover.
Our class sessions seek to be inclusive, offering multiple perspectives, viewpoints, or lived experiences, but may not include the voices of every population for a number of reasons. Let’s talk in class about the voices that aren’t being presented.
The background, experience, and knowledge you bring to this class session are valuable. There isn’t one right interpretation of a historical document. Please listen carefully and treat everyone’s responses respectfully.
The material you encounter in this session has the potential to be uncomfortable or upsetting. Be kind to yourself and recognize your limits. You can look at something else or even step out of the room to take a break.
When working with historical documents, you may encounter racist, oppressive, or outdated language in the documents themselves or in the archival record. When we discuss these items, we will want to use terms that reflect the ways these communities describe themselves today.
Later this month, we’ll come together as a group of instructors to talk about how we’ve been able to incorporate the code into our class sessions—but informal reports suggest it’s been useful! Our practice has generally been to give students two to three minutes to individually read over the code (presented on a slide) and then talk as a class about any questions they might have and how the individual points in the code might come up in the class session.
We see this as a living document that we’ll continue to refine and add to as needed. So please do let us know what you think and feel free to borrow or adapt our instruction code of ethics for your own class sessions!
What: Radio Haiti Project Culminating Event: A Conversation with Michéle Montas
When: 5:30 PM, Thursday, April 11
Where: Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall, Bay 4 (C105) Smith Warehouse, 114 S Buchanan BLVD, Durham, NC 27701
Haitian journalist and human rights activist Michéle Montas discusses the legacy of Radio Haïti-Inter, Radio Haiti’s archive at Duke’s Rubenstein Library, and the past, present, and future of justice and impunity in Haiti. With additional remarks by Laurent Dubois, Radio Haiti project archivist Laura Wagner, and AV archivist Craig Breaden. Light refreshments. Free and open to the public.
The processing of the Radio Haiti Archive and the Radio Haiti Archive digital collection were made possible through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Post contributed by Jennifer Garcon, Bollinger Fellow in Public and Community Data Curation at Penn Libraries
One morning in July 1965, an unfamiliar voice radiated from the transistor radios of Port-au-Prince residents. Rather than hearing pre-recordings of President-for-Life, François Duvalier, residents heard the dissenting voices of exiles based in New York. The program, La Voix de l’Union Haïtienne Internationale, would become known as Radio Vonvon. While they must have immediately recognized the dangers of tuning in, people unearthed radios hidden in kitchens and in bathrooms, and continued to listen to the clandestine program each Sunday, “to listen to words of hope about one day ending this nightmare,” in the words of New York-based Haitian journalist Ricot Dupuy. This, I argue, was a political act.
My doctoral research explores how journalists deployed various media strategies to mobilize their audiences against dictatorship in Haiti. I centralize broadcasting because, I argue, 1) radio was, and in many places, remains a powerful cultural force; 2) the medium was easily accessible and widely available, and thus had unparalleled democratic appeal and influence; and 3) radio, unlike print media, does not require literacy as a prerequisite for participation. Radio, particularly Kreyòl language broadcasting, was a platform that embodies equity and democratized politics; and vernacular radio archives reflect this inclusion.
From a material culture standpoint, reduced cost and increased post-WWII supply transformed radio technology into a crucial instrument of struggle in Cold War Latin America, and elsewhere in the Global South. As historian Alejandra Bronfman reminds us in Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean, “the sounds of radio are [by their very nature of production and dissemination] ephemeral.” For that reason alone, the comprehensiveness of the Radio Haiti Records are indeed exceptional.
Using a sampling of the approximately 5300 recordings and 191 boxes of paper documents that constitute the Radio Haiti archives — spanning field reports, editorials, investigative reports, in-studio interviews, and special programming — I built an argument that reframes the everyday activities of ordinary people as political activity and agitation.
Investigating radio listening as a form of political engagement allows for a more granular examination of the transformation of civil society that I argue occurred between 1971 and 1987, during the presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier and in the immediate aftermath of his fall from power. This, I contend, challenges the scholarly interpretations that mischaracterize peasants as politically inert throughout much of the Duvalier era, until the killing of three schoolboys in Gonaïves on November 28, 1985 (the Twa Flè Lespwa, or Three Flowers of Hope). In contrast, my research charts broad domestic ferment on the air-waves. Radio media, in addition to independent vernacular print outlets, offered a space where dispersed sectors of the Haitian population could critique and challenge state power. Radio records have helped to offer insights into patterns of open opposition to government excess that predate the 1985 killings. These included reactions to the murder of the young journalist Gasner Raymond, who was killed after investigating workers’ strikes at the state-owned cement factory in 1976; rice farmers’ revolts against repressive local Macoutes in the Artibonite between 1977 and 1979; peasant farmers’ and workers’ opposition to Reynolds Haitian Mines in Miragoâne; attempted coups in 1981 and 1982, and anti-government bombings between 1980 and 1983.
Radio programming offered a discursive public space in which to practice one’s politics, where few other avenues remained. Having grown used to practicing forbidden forms of citizenship on the airwaves, this radio activism soon moved onto the streets. In the popular movement that uprooted Duvalierism, the Haitian majority– Kreyòl speaking peasant farmers, agricultural day laborers, and urban workers—who had once formed bases of support for the regime now demanded the end of the dictatorship. I plot the emergence of a nearly decade and a half long grassroots political movement against Jean-Claude Duvalier by examining radio media to show how ordinary people first negotiated the terms of their citizenship within an authoritarian system, and later struggled to uproot that system in its entirety.
The complete audio archive of Radio Haiti will soon be available to the public via Duke’s Digital Repository, which will be an unparalleled resource for historians and other researchers interested in radio, political resistance, and the circulation of information in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora.
This is a guest blog post by Nathan Dize, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University specializing in Haitian literature and history.
Twenty-eight days after the passing of James Baldwin, on December 28, 1987, Haitian writers Jan J. Dominique and Yanick Lahens and their cohost, bookseller Monique Lafontant, paid homage to the African American writer with a discussion of the significance of his novel If Beale Street Could Talk on Radio Haïti Inter’s weekly cultural program, Entre Nous. Set in New York City, the novel focuses on the lives of childhood friends-turned-lovers Tish and Fonny as they prepare to welcome their first child. The two are suddenly separated when Fonny is arrested and accused for the alleged rape of a Puerto Rican woman. Tish narrates the story as both her and Fonny’s families attempt to prove the young Black man’s innocence. Yanick Lahens begins with her review of the book, followed by a brief discussion of Baldwin’s literary career.
For Lahens, Beale Street is a “faithful and realistic portrait” of the generation of the Great Migration where African Americans moved to northern and industrial cities in the Midwest as a response to the tightening of Jim Crow legislation and racial violence in the South. More importantly, Lahens explains that the literary strength of the novel lies in the way it presents an “evolution of hope or extreme despair” as the plot unfolds. She argues that readers never completely slip into despair, yet readers cannot enjoy hopeful moments long enough to sustain a sense of optimism that Fonny will ever be freed from prison.
In recent weeks, If Beale Street Could Talk has again been on the tips of critics’ tongues as Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Critics of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated adaptation of Beale Street have also focused on Baldwin’s ability to productively operate between the poles of hope and despair. While some reviewers bristle at how some of the novel’s more severe moments, like Tish and Fonny’s first sexual encounter, “shimmer romantically in Jenkins’ film,” other parts of the film faithfully reach for Baldwin’s depth of blues and melancholy. Back in 1987, Yanick Lahens explained that readers immediately encounter despair “from the first lines [of the novel] we see that this young man will never leave prison.” Baldwin’s novel exposes the “judiciary machine” in the United States that gives the semblance of hope, but that will ultimately never let him go or leave the two families unscathed.
Towards the end of her review, Lahens explains that the accents, the sounds, the feelings of the blues permeate Baldwin’s writing. These “accents of the blues” in Beale Street are found in the characters’ despair and bitterness in the face of Fonny’s imprisonment. In an essay from his collection Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin writes about his discovery of the language of the blues through the music of Bessie Smith, which Lahens reads in French:
“It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep […] I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I never touched watermelon), but in Europe she helped me to reconcile myself to being a ‘nigger.’”
Some critics have claimed that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation is a failure, that Baldwin deserves better. “Is [Jenkins’] movie too beautiful?” Doreen St. Félix writes for the New Yorker. St. Félix agrees that film adaptations do not have to remain faithful to the text; they are adaptations, after all. But, the point where Lahens’ reading of Baldwin’s blues coincides with Jenkins’ film is perhaps best captured when Fonny’s old friend, the good-natured and affable Daniel, played by Brian Tyree Henry, tells Fonny about his arrest. St. Félix explains that this scene “is washed in a darkness that is incongruous with the rest of the film’s palette.” In the novel, Baldwin sounds the depths of despair as Daniel confesses that he was gang-raped in prison, instead Jenkins renders this aesthetically with color saturation. In his own right, Henry’s portrayal of Daniel’s character had many critics calling for him to be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor category. Brian Tyree Henry expertly contrasts moments of superficial cheer with sullen, vacant looks through clouds of cigarette smoke to convey Daniel’s fractured dignity. Beyond Henry’s performance, Regina King’s wails from the streets of Viejo San Juan also supremely express what Lahens describes as “all the accents of the blues,” earning her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Baldwin’s discovery of the blues in the Swiss Alps is remarkable for Lahens, Dominique, and Lafontant who consider James Baldwin as a writer of the African American Diaspora. The three conclude the segment by comparing Baldwin to Haitian writers forced to flee the successive dictatorial regimes of François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier. For many of the journalists and employees of Radio Haïti Inter, forced exile remained an open wound as the station had just re-opened the previous year in October 1986. Decades later, when the radio station finally shuttered its doors, Jan J. Dominique herself would also eventually go into exile in Montreal in 2003, fleeing a violent climate towards the press that led to the assassination of her father, Radio Haiti director Jean Dominique, on April 3, 2000.
As I listened to this review on the eve of the 91st Academy Awards, I was reminded of the importance of James Baldwin in global expressions of Blackness in literature, how artists and writers have thought through and with Baldwin even after his passing. I am also reminded of the significance of the recording’s survival through the efforts of project archivist Laura Wagner and the other archivists, librarians, and graduate and undergraduates working at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The review of If Beale Street Could Talk is but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as a search in the Duke University Libraries Digital Repository leads to more than 4,000 individual recordings of cultural, historical, literary, and journalistic reportages from 1957-2003. At present, an excess of 4,800 of an approximate 5,300 recordings have been described and are either available or will be available online for listening this spring. So, as you process the results of this year’s Academy Awards, be sure to make a visit to the Radio Haiti Archives catalog and browse their collection that has just as much to do with Haiti’s past as it does with our cultural and historical present in 2019.
 “Dès la première ligne [du roman] on voit que ce bonhomme ne sortira pas de prison…”
 Yanick Lahens refers to the US judicial system a “machine judiciaire.”
This post is contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist, and is part of “An Instant Out of Time: Photography a the Rubenstein Library” blog series.
My work as a photographic archivist often includes improving the housing of the thousands of photographs found in older collections in the Rubenstein Library. One such group of seventy-eight photographs was recently discovered in the Isabelle Perkinson Williamson Papers, a collection of letters chiefly between Isabelle and her mother. The Perkinsons were residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, where several family members served on the faculty at the University. Isabelle married a civil engineer, Lee H. Williamson, in 1917 and traveled and lived abroad with her husband. World War I found Lee Williamson serving in the 55th Engineers of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. The collection includes his military ID card as well as some wartime correspondence.
As I sorted and sleeved the bundle of photographs, I came across a single studio portrait of three children that didn’t seem to fit in with the others, chiefly because of the children’s dress:
Turning it over, I observed a stamp from the Red Cross Bureau of Photography, and the address of a Madame Bras in France:
An online investigation using the negative number on the print and key words such as “Red Cross photographs” quickly turned up a matching digitized glass plate negative, part of the Library of Congress’s American Red Cross negative collection of over 19,000 scanned images.
The caption reads: “Jeanne Le Bras, adopte. Address: Mme. LeBras, Haut du Bourg Plogastel St. Germaine (Finistere Pres Guimper) protégé of: 302 Ambulance Co. Sanitary Train, Care Company Clerk. American Expeditionary Forces .” The photographer is recorded as Joseph A. Collin, who took many of the images found in the Red Cross collection.
Here’s what I learned from the Library of Congress site and other resources: in the aftermath of World War I, whose events we continue to commemorate in 2019, thousands of refugee families and orphaned children were “adopted” by American troops and cared for by American Red Cross staff. The Red Cross hired professional photographers to document the organization’s efforts in Europe; they took hundreds of portraits of refugees and orphan children. The images may have been used in many ways: to find lost families; to publicize children available for adoption, or to record their successful adoption. As an interesting sidelight, I discovered that one of these photographers was Lewis Hine; his camera recorded over 1100 images for the Red Cross and are also part of the Library of Congress collection.
Some of the images in the Library of Congress Red Cross collection show signs of heavy editing: children were erased from group portraits, perhaps because they had already been adopted, and in some cases, adult figures blocked out. The latter was a common practice of the 19th century – explore this phenomenon by searching online for “hidden mothers photography.”
The Library of Congress caption for the single image found in the Rubenstein collection names only one child out of the three, Jeanne; it is not clear which one was Jeanne, but one hopes that all three were adopted and raised by kind families. Also a mystery is how the photograph came to live with the others in the Isabelle Williamson collection. It may have originated from Isabelle’s husband, who served in World War I, or from a friend of the family, Mary Peyton, who was a field nurse in World War I.
There is an abundance of primary source material on World War I in the Duke Libraries – images as well as papers. “Views of the Great War,” a Rubenstein Library online exhibit, is a great way to learn more about this world-changing event as revealed through our collections.