African American History at the National Archives

February is African American History Month! Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our many events and activities celebrating African American History.

National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans program, July 4-5, 1973. (Records of the National Archives)

In the late 1960s the National Archives began hosting conferences for researchers and scholars. These were held on a variety of subjects, but all related to records held by the institution. The purpose was not only to publicize National Archives holdings but also for the National Archives to learn how it could better serve the needs of researchers and scholars.

In 1973 the National Archives decided to hold a conference on African American sources to highlight its vast amount of material related to Black history. Attention to African American history had been increasing dramatically in the years leading up to the conference, and with that came an increased interest in the primary sources that document that history.

In 1971 the National Archives hired Robert L. (Bob) Clarke from the Virginia State College as a specialist in African American records. Clarke served as the conference director.

The conference was held June 4-5, 1973, and featured staff from the National Archives, representatives from several colleges and universities, and authors and editors—all with extensive experience with African American history.

Conference director Robert L. Clarke speaking at the National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans, June 4, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 35810310)

Archivist of the United States James “Bert” Rhoads, Arthur F. Sampson, Acting Administrator of GSA, and Clarke each provided welcoming remarks. The editor of the Journal of Negro History and founding member of the History Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, W. Augustus Low, gave the opening address.

Over the next two days, panelists delved deeper in the many archival sources for Afro-American research, offering perspectives from both the archivists and the researchers.

J. C. James, Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, talked about the many resources found in the Presidential libraries. Edgar Toppin, professor and member of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, highlighted the many published sources related to Black Americans.

From the researcher perspective, Mary Frances Berry, then with the University of Maryland, Roland C. McConnell with Morgan State University, and Elaine M. Smith from the Tuskegee Institute discussed their personal experiences using archival sources to research African American History.

Alex Haley speaking at the National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans, June 5, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 35810316)

Author Alex Haley was brought in for a special panel on Afro-American genealogy. Haley had been the ghostwriter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X but was most well known for his later work—the bestselling novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which became an extremely popular television miniseries.

The conference ended with a talk by John W. Blassingame, chairman of the African American Studies program at Yale University and editor of the Frederick Douglass papers. He praised the Archives for helping highlight the materials available to researchers but also pointed out a number of shortcomings with both the conference and access to African American primary sources material.

This is just a small glimpse into the conference and the National Archives holdings related to African American History. Howard University Press published the entire conference proceedings in Afro-American History: Sources for Research. It also includes reproductions of several archival documents and biographies of the participants.

Since then, the National Archives has made great strides in the realm of African American History. Say it Loud!, our African American Employee Affinity Group, is specifically concerned with publicizing relevant records and working with researchers to ensure resources on African American History are readily available. Visit the National Archives Guide to Black History and the Black Power Portal to learn more about our rich African American history resources.

Dispatch from Frederick Douglass, Minister to Haiti, to Secretary of State James G. Blaine, January 29, 1891, which was reprinted in Afro-American History Sources for Research. (Records of the Department of State, National Archives)

4 thoughts on “African American History at the National Archives

  1. This week marks the Centennial of the purchase of the Danish West Imdies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) from Denmark. I am a Virgin Islands writer of the first Travel Passes given to the residents of these islands as “Nationals” – non-citizen immigrants — traveling to U.S. mainland ports. Have any papers been released from the National Archives to commemorate this historic event?
    I am desperate to know whom might be the Contact Resource Officer for the Record Group 25 at the College Park facility to get scanned copies of these records!

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