HBCU Archival Collections: Repositories of History

Last Updated on November 14, 2021

Amy Garvey Memorial Collection on Marcus Garvey, 1776-1971 at Fisk University
The Fisk University Special Collections contains the Marcus Garvey Memorial Collection (1776-1971), as well as many other papers and works of scholarly and literary figures of national acclaim.

The HBCUStory Symposium was held a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. This symposium centered on the importance of knowing, preserving, and sharing the history and legacies of HBCUs. One of reoccurring themes during the event was the importance of HBCU archives and collections as well as historians who respect and tell the HBCU story. Many of our HBCUs have very deep and invaluable special collections and archives. For historians and those doing historical research, archives and special collections prove important. With so much history unexplored regarding HBCUs and African Americans, HBCUs would appear to be prime places to unearth this treasured history.

Almost coincidentally, at the same time as the symposium, there was an announcement that the renowned author and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, would be leaving her personal papers to Princeton University. Morrison’s decision caused quite a stir in various academic circles, especially Black circles. Many persons ranged in emotion from concern to anger as to why Toni Morrison, who graduated from Howard University, chose to leave her papers to a majority institution instead of her HBCU alma mater. Though there are many issues that deserve attention with regard to Morrison’s donation, we want to focus on the importance of HBCUs as not just historical institutions but as repositories of history.

We ask, “What would prompt someone who heralded Black culture and never hid her Howard University lineage to leave her writings with Princeton instead of her undergraduate alma mater?” We may never know the reasoning behind Morrison’s decision unless she addresses it. But what we do know is that it is important that HBCUs not only preserve and maintain African American archives and special collections, but that they also be proactive in developing relationships with prominent African Americans that will ensure growth.

Archival collection development is not just a task that falls on the shoulders of a librarian or an archivist, though it is one of their larger responsibilities. Various components of the campus have established relationships with alumni, organizations, and holders of rare manuscripts and books that should be working with librarians and archivists to cultivate relationships that could lead to donations.

HBCUs would benefit from telling the public about their archival collections more regularly. Many HBCUs have very rare collections. Many HBCUs have documents in their archives pertaining to notable presidents, Black leaders, politicians, and a host of others. For example, Fisk University holds the papers of sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson as well as the papers of Arna Bontemps, Mary Mcleod Bethune, Countee Cullen, Aaron Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. Likewise, Tuskegee University holds the papers of George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington as well as key documents related to the Tuskegee Airmen and Tuskegee’s famed veterinary school. These special collections should bring great pride and should not be a secret.

HBCUs and their advocates should promote HBCU libraries and collections. These collections draw in students and scholars to the campuses of HBCUs that might not otherwise be on campus. They also draw the eyes and attentions of funders and philanthropists interested in promoting research in the humanities and furthering our understanding of American history.

Funding is necessary to ensuring paper preservation, staffing, and collection procurement. Unfortunately, many HBCU archives are underfunded. Therefore, one of the ways we can aid our HBCUs in acquiring papers such as Morrison’s is by donating to HBCU archives and vigorously fundraising on behalf of these special collections.

HBCUs have been and continue to be places that cherish the African American experience and stories of the African diaspora. It is this understanding that makes them ideal to hold the stories of the greatest moments and persons in African American history. If we want African American children and others to learn the rich history of their ancestors, HBCUs and their archival collection are essential.

We’ll leave you with one question, “When was the last time you visited an HBCU archive or supported one financially?

About the Authors

Marybeth Gasman, Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.

Felecia Commodore, Penn Center for Minority Serving InstitutionsFelecia Commodore is a fourth year PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was recently a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia's research focus area is HBCU leadership, governance, and administrative practices.

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