Follow That Banner

In the very top of the dome of the Rotunda, right over the cases holding the Constitution, there is a large opening called an oculus. In March, facilities staff lowered a cable through the oculus to hoist up a 225-foot-long banner that starts over the Bill of Rights, swings up into the middle of the dome, and then meanders out the door, along the hallway, and ends at “Amending America,” a new temporary exhibit.

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Visitors stand in front of the Bill of Rights

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Acting Archivist Trudy Huskamp Peterson

The National Archives History Office is celebrating Women’s History Month by featuring past employees. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion. 

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Trudy Peterson, 1988. (Records of the National Archives)

Trudy Huskamp Peterson was appointed Acting Archivist of the United States in March 1993, following the departure of Archivist Don W. Wilson, who left to head the new Bush Presidential Library Center.

She was the first woman to hold the position.

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The Not-So-Lame Amendment

Today’s post comes from Hailey Philbin in the National Archives History Office. 

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Joint resolution proposing the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution, March 2, 1932. (National Archives Identifier 1410754)

The 20th Amendment is often referred to as the Lame Duck Amendment. It was passed by Congress on March 2, 1932, and ratified on January 3, 1933.

The amendment changed the date of the Presidential inauguration from March 4 to January 20. It also outlined the course of action if there is a change in President-elect, and when Presidential and congressional terms begin and end.

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention did not address election, commencement, and inauguration dates in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution only requires that Congress meet once a year to discuss the condition of the country.

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Ms. Archivist

The National Archives History Office is celebrating Women’s History Month by featuring past employees. Today’s post comes from Hailey Philbin.

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Mabel Deutrich. (National Archives Identifier 12170444)

“Deutrich’s only disadvantage in this respect lies in her being a woman.”

Imagine hearing this and inevitably realizing that your career ambitions would be restricted because of your gender. Mabel Deutrich was given this discriminatory explanation as a reason why it might be difficult for her to receive a promotion before an equally, or even less qualified male. Continue reading

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Clio was a woman: Trailblazers at the National Archives

This photo was taken in 1966 in the Auditorium at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

It’s the Miss Archives Contest.

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Miss Archives Contest, 1966. (National Archives Identifier 3493272)

Yes, that really happened. And no, there was not a Mr. Archives Contest.

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The Wild, Wild West . . . of Pennsylvania Avenue

We are wrapping up our celebration of Black History Month. Today’s post comes from Hailey Philbin.

On a sunny day in 1944, young Sara Jackson walked along the noisy DC streets right into the National Archives and asked for a job.

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Sara Dunlap Jackson receiving the Houston Civil War Round Table’s Frank E. Vandiver Award, 1990. (National Archives History Office Collection)

It wasn’t very often that someone walked in from the street asking for a job at the National Archives. It was even less often, and practically unknown, for a black woman to do that.

Sara Dunlap Jackson graduated with a degree in sociology from John C. Smith College in 1943. Although her goal had initially been to become a social worker, her first college-graduate job was teaching the fourth grade. Continue reading

Posted in - The 1960s, - Women's Rights, - World War II, National Archives History, Pennsylvania Avenue, The 1970s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Leon Poyner: Supporting the Archives for 25 Years

The National Archives History Office continues to highlight past employees in celebration of Black History Month. 

Leon Poyner began his career at the National Archives as a chauffeur in 1936. He worked his way up to Transportation Manager and ultimately Chief of Archival Services in the Archives Handling Branch.

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Leon D. Poyner’s ID card near the beginning of his career at the National Archives, February 3, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 12091409)

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Harold Pinkett: An Archivist and Scholar

The National Archives History Office continues to celebrate Black History Month with stories of former employees. Today’s post comes from Kaitlin Errickson.

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Harold Pinkett, ca. 1978. (National Archives History Office Collection)

Dr. Harold Pinkett established many firsts for African Americans at both the National Archives and in the field of archival studies. His career was impressive and exceptional, and bridged the archival and historical communities.

Harold Pinkett was born on April 7, 1914, in Salisbury, Maryland. He attended Morgan College (now Morgan State University), where he graduated summa cum laude in 1935, and three years later he earned his M.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania. Continue reading

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James D. Walker: Lone Messenger to International Genealogist

In celebration of Black History Month the National Archives History Office is sharing stories of African American former employees and their influence on the institution. Today’s post comes from Kirsten Dillon. 

James D. Walker, Research Consultant, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 3493293)

James D. Walker, Research Consultant, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 3493293)

James “Jimmy” Dent Walker, born June 9, 1928, in Washington, DC, was a well-known genealogical consultant at the National Archives. During his career, Walker built up the National Archives’ public standing as a place for genealogical research. He was particularly noted for his knowledge of military and pension records, and his ability to uncover sources important to African American genealogy.

However, Walker had a long and sometimes challenging path to his prominent position.

Walker worked at the National Archives on three separate occasions. The first time he was a self-described “lone messenger” while in high school during World War II. During the war, the National Archives employed people as young as 16 to fill positions vacated by those serving in the military. When the war ended, those fillers, along with Walker, lost their positions to returning veterans.

Walker returned to the National Archives after serving in the Korean War. He had served as a Navy surveyor 2nd class, although Walker said he did “everything but survey.” His time in the Navy was marked by working in different positions when called upon and moving up in the ranks. By the time he was discharged from the Navy in 1951, Walker was the highest ranking enlisted man and fifth-highest surveyor in the Navy. In his own words, he had “come up from the bottom of the heap.”

This trend continued during Walker’s time at the National Archives. He returned in October 1951 as a messenger in the Central Reference Office, the same position he held years earlier. After a year and half, he was transferred to the Industrial Records Branch and ultimately promoted to the Old Army Records Branch in the military division.

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General Services Administration (GSA) Annual Awards Ceremony, left to right: Corrine Staton, Edna Self, Marion Johnson, Cyrus Greenawalt, Marjorie Wagus, James Walker, and Edward MacClane, 5/20/1965. (National Archives Identifier 17616884)

Although Walker was a valuable staff member, he began to face challenges from within the National Archives.

In his new role as a technician, Walker was greeted by a formal protest from his co-workers, who felt that Walker was not qualified for the job since he held no degree. According to Walker, he and other black employees often had supervisors who tried to prevent the promotion of minorities within the Archives. Walker recalled talking to other African American workers who felt they would never be recognized for their work or promoted simply because of their race.

Walker, however, decided not to let adverse situations “dictate his conduct or actions.”

In time, Walker was promoted to supervisor of the Military Service Section. He continued to demonstrate his distinct work ethic, learning the records inside and out, wherever he went.

In 1957 Walker left the National Archives again but ultimately returned for the third, and final time. He was offered a position as research consultant and worked on genealogical research.

At that time, Walker faced disagreements with other Archives staff about the value of genealogical research verses more “scholarly” research.

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Photograph of the opening of the new Microfilm Reading Room. Pictured from left to right are an unidentified researcher and Archives staff members James Walker and Jim Gear, 6/24/1971 (National Archives Identifier 23856415)

Then came Roots, Alex Haley’s immensely popular 1976 book that traced his ancestry back to a  man named Kunta Kinte in Africa. Walker helped Haley with the genealogical research for the novel, and when it was released, the National Archives was flooded with requests for genealogical research material.

Shortly after the premiere of the miniseries based on the book, Walker founded the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society to promote interest in African American history and genealogy.

In many ways, this was the same work that Walker tried to perform at the National Archives.

Before his time and even during it, Walker stated that the National Archives “considered genealogical research to be akin to sin.” But, with help from staff like Walker, the National Archives became one the best places in the country for genealogical research.

In his last position at the National Archives, Walker was transferred back to the military unit and retired in 1979. He went on to work as an archivist in District of Columbia public schools and continued to further his work on genealogical studies, including giving lectures and producing numerous publications.

James Walker’s legacy stretches far beyond what he did for genealogical research. In every position he held, he conducted himself professionally yet challenged the institutions that he felt could be improved.

Walker died on October 8, 1993, in Washington, DC.

Walker’s recollections are from a recorded oral history interview on March 2, 1985, with Rod Ross at the D.A.R. Building in Washington, DC.

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Celebrating Black History Month

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List of African-American employees of the National Archives, November 23, 1942. (Records of the National Archives)

Today Pieces of History kicks off a month-long celebration of Black History. 

The National Archives has millions of pages of records that document African American history—from blacks serving in the Revolutionary War to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.

But behind those stories are the stories of the many African American employees of the National Archives who have worked tirelessly over the years to make those and many more records available to the American public.

Like many government agencies, the National Archives has a checkered past when it comes to hiring and promoting African Americans.

In the early years of the 1930s and 1940s, black employees faced extreme prejudices and were mostly limited to more manual and unskilled behind the scene jobs.

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Leon D. Poyner’s ID card near the beginning of his career at the National Archives, February 3, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 12091409)

Very few African Americans held professional archivist positions, and those who were able to get those jobs were not promoted at the same pace as their white colleagues.

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Dr. Harold Pinkett, speaking at Conference on Research in the Administration of Public Policy, 1970.  (National Archives Identifier 23856319)

The Civil Rights era saw black employees begin to make greater gains in securing higher profile positions. Harold Pinkett was promoted to head a branch at the National Archives, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library selected J. C. James as the first black director of a Presidential library.

Over the course of Black History Month, the National Archives History Office will be exploring the stories of Harold Pinkett, Leon Poyner, James Walker, and other African Americans who have worked at the National Archives.

We will offer insight into their experiences working at the National Archives, and their important contributions to the history of our agency.

Visit Prologue to read more articles by National Archives staff and others who explore the depth and breadth of material in the National Archives related to African American history.

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