Historic Staff Spotlight: Lillian Grandy

We are taking a look at past staff and their many contributions to the National Archives throughout its history. Today’s staff spotlight is on Lillian Grandy, who began her National Archives career as a secretary and ended it as an exhibit specialist with a focus on Black history.

Lillian Elizabeth Grandy (née Love) was born on April 20, 1924, in Nashville, TN. After graduating from Tennessee State University with a degree in business education, she moved to the nation’s capital and worked as a court reporter with the DC Juvenile Court.

Grandy came to the National Archives in 1960 as a secretary in the Business and Economics branch. She moved to the Diplomatic, Legal, and Fiscal Branch before ending up in Educational Programs, where she worked for the remainder of her National Archives career. By the time of her retirement in 1984, she was an exhibits specialist, with many of her projects highlighting African American history. 

Lillian Grandy receiving a performance award, 5/20/1968. (National Archives Identifier 102252858)

During her time at the National Archives, some of the major projects she worked on included the exhibit and accompanying publications for Alston: Drawings of Charles Alston and The Written Word Endures: Milestone Documents from the National Archives. She also researched the photographs that were included in the second volume of Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives.

Grandy is probably most known at the National Archives for her exhibit The Long Road Up the Hill: Blacks in the United States Congress, 1870–1981. It was displayed at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from February 27, 1981, through April 15, 1984.  

The exhibit examined the first wave of Black members of Congress who were elected during Reconstruction; looked at how discriminatory laws and local customs prevented Blacks from voting, resulting in the lack of Black members of Congress from 1901 to 1929; and ended in the then-present day with a look at current members and the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Grandy said she wanted to do the exhibit because of the inaccuracies of the history on Black members of Congress, especially those in the 19th century. She thought it was important to teach the American public that these men were teachers, farmers, lawyers, politicians, and ministers—not uneducated farm hands as she saw portrayed while growing up. 

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) created a traveling version of The Long Road Up the Hill that circulated from 1985 to 1989. SITES then expanded it even further with an updated version from 1991 to 1996. The exhibit was also used to support National Register of Historic Places designation for Joseph H. Rainey’s house in Georgetown, South Carolina. Rainey was the first African American to serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Grandy was also active in several organizations that promoted Black history. In the mid-1970s, Grandy, along with other National Archives staff, formed a chapter of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) at the National Archives to promote the value of records relating to Afro-American history held there. The chapter focused on celebrating Black History Month and sponsored panel discussions, lectures, and pamphlets that highlighted relevant records within the National Archives. 

One way the organization promoted Black History Month was to host students from Washington, DC, schools named or partially named after notable African Americans. Students from Harriet Tubman Elementary, Robert H. Terrell Junior High, Garnet-Patterson Junior High, and Carter G. Woodson Junior High would come to the National Archives for Grandy to show them original documents about their schools’ namesakes.

Unfortunately, the National Archives ASALH chapter folded after only a few years, but it’s members, including Grandy, helped form the Afro-American History Society (AAHS) at the National Archives in 1980. The organization’s mission was to promote the collection, study, and dissemination of historical information relating to the history, culture, and contributions of Black Americans to American history, particularly as reflected in National Archives holdings. Grandy also served as archivist for the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS).

Grandy retired from the National Archives in 1984 but continued to work in history as a consultant. She was an active member of the Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, where she was called the “museum lady” because she would bring in historical items from her personal collection to illuminate Black history. 

Lillian Elizabeth Grandy passed away on March 17, 2001, in Baltimore, Maryland, at age 76.

February is Black History Month. Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our Black History Month events and find sources documenting the African American experience.

Thank you to Billy Wade for providing the poster image for this post!

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