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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The National Archives: A Pioneer in Microfilm Online Exhibit

Today’s post comes from Emily Niekrasz, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

Photograph of Microfilm Camera at the National Archives, January 15, 1937. (National Archives Identifier 12168566)

Photograph of Microfilm Camera at the National Archives, January 15, 1937. (National Archives Identifier 12168566)

Since 1936, the National Archives has microfilmed documents in order to preserve frequently used originals and to allow researchers to study materials without making a potentially long and expensive trip to Washington, DC.

The National Archives History Office has created a new exhibit about the National Archives’ leadership in the effort to promote the use of microfilm to preserve valuable original documents.

At the outbreak of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for an increase in the use of microfilm to protect the United States’ most treasured documents from the dangers of war.

Similarly, Vernon D. Tate, Chief of the Division of Photographic Reproduction and Research for the National Archives, argued that microfilm was “in importance with any military weapon thus far disclosed.”

As a result of this encouragement, the National Archives microfilmed hundreds of thousands of documents by the end of World War II.

Photograph of Microfilm, Veterans’ Bureau Index, January 20, 1939. (National Archives Identifier 12168672)

Since 1945, the National Archives encouraged other archives both within the United States and abroad to use microfilm for research and preservation.

For instance, in 1966, the Extraordinary Congress of the International Council on Archives (ICA) was held in Washington, DC, where microfilm was discussed on an international stage.

There, Morris Rieger, an archivist at the National Archives suggested that the ICA should create what would become the Microphotography Committee. In a survey, the committee concluded that out of 56 countries, all but 10 were prepared to microfilm documents.

As other nations were just beginning to microfilm, the National Archives had already made great strides toward preservation with this process in the previous 30 years.

Then, as a result of the popularity of the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots, a new wave of researchers swept through the Archives. Roots explored the story of Kunta Kinte, author Alex Haley’s ancestor who had been sold into slavery. America watched as Haley traced his familial roots.

The opening of new Microfilm Reading Room at the National Archives, June 24, 1971. (National Archives Identifier23856415)

The opening of new Microfilm Reading Room at the National Archives, June 24, 1971. (National Archives Identifier 23856415)

Soon, new researchers came to the National Archives to study their own family’s genealogy. For the first time, there were lines to use microfilm readers.

While researchers continued to take advantage of available microfilm, by the late 1990s, only a minuscule fraction of the National Archives’ holdings had been microfilmed. As a result, large-scale digitization projects have been established, and today the National Archives is digitizing more and more of its holdings.

The National Archives holds over 4,000 microfilm publications, which are available in Washington, DC, or by ordering copies online.

To learn more about the National Archives’ leading role in microfilm, explore the new online exhibit The National Archives: A Pioneer in Microfilm in Google Cultural Institute.

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Featured document: Tuskegee Airmen

“Members of the 99th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Forces, famous all-Negro outfit, who are rapidly making themselves feared by enemy pilots, pose for a picture at the Anzio beachhead. In the foreground, head bared, is 1st Lt. Andrew Lane.” (NARA ID 520624)

At the start of World War II, African Americans serving in the Armed Forces were segregated into all-black units. They were also limited in the types of positions they could hold—blacks in the U.S. military did not fly planes.

On April 3, 1939, Congress passed legislation expanding the Army Air Corps (the precursor to today’s Air Force). Among the act’s provisions was the creation of training programs located at historically black colleges to prepare African Americans for Air Corps service.

On January 16, 1941, the War Department announced they were creating the 99th Pursuit Squadron. (Fighter planes were then called “pursuit planes,” hence the name Pursuit Squadron; during the war the term was replaced with “fighter squadron.”)

What made the 99th Pursuit Squadron different was that it was to be an all-black flying unit trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. War Department officials selected Tuskegee because it had an airfield and civilian pilot training program.

“Tuskegee Airmen” became the nickname for the World War II Army Air Forces units that were made up predominantly of African American pilots and maintenance crews.

Address of welcome to Army Air Corps cadets in front of Booker T. Washington Monument on the grounds of Tuskegee Institute, August 1941. (National Archives Identifier 531132)

From 1941 to 1946, nearly 1,000 African Americans completed training at the Tuskegee Institute as pilots, and many went on to serve with distinction during the war.

Despite their service to the country, the U.S. military remained segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive Order desegregating the U.S. military.

On March 29, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal. During the ceremony, President George W. Bush acknowledged the men for their contribution to winning the war and saluted them for their service to the nation.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, a special exhibit will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from January 7, 2016, through March 2, 2016.

Pilots of a U.S. Army Air Forces Fighter Squadron, ca. February 1944. (National Archives Identifier 535763)

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Protecting the Bill of Rights: the Mosler Vault

Progress on installing the vault in the Exhibition Hall, November 7, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167771)

Progress on installing the vault in the Exhibition Hall, November 7, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167771)

In April 1952 Congress ordered the Library of Congress to transfer the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to the National Archives.

The two documents were to go on public display in the National Archives Building along with the Bill of Rights, which was already at the Archives.

While the Archives exhibition hall had been specifically designed to display the two documents, it did not have a safe place to store the documents when they weren’t on exhibit.

The National Archives contracted with the Mosler Safe Company to construct a vault beneath the exhibition hall’s floor. At that time, an estimated 70 percent of all banks in the United States used Mosler safes and vaults.

Archives officials announced they would unveil the documents on Bill of Rights day that year.

This did not give the company much time.

Mosler Safe being constructed, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167779)

Mosler Safe being constructed, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167779)

Working under the looming deadline, Mosler engineers, technicians, and machinists worked around the clock to design and build a vault worthy of protecting the nation’s most valuable documents.

The company constructed the vault in Hamilton, Ohio, then brought it to Washington, DC, for installation.

The vault was made of steel and reinforced concrete. It was located about 20 feet beneath the floor of the exhibition hall. Built during the Cold War era, the vault was designed to be fireproof, shockproof, and bombproof.

During visiting hours, the three documents were displayed in then state-of-the art cases.

Every night, at the press of a button, the elevator gently lowered the documents in their cases through the floor into a 50-ton safe where they sat overnight.

The next morning, the elevator would again raise the documents for public viewing.

The two center pages of the Constitution, which were not exhibited, were also stored in the vault.

Vice President Nixon, Senator Bricker, and Mr. Mosler view the scale model of the shrine and safe, June 29, 1954. (National Archives Identifier 3493223)

Vice President Nixon, Senator Bricker, and Mr. Mosler view the scale model of the shrine and safe, June 29, 1954. (National Archives Identifier 3493223)

During the dedication ceremony on December 15, 1952, President Harry Truman said America’s treasured documents are “as safe from destruction as anything that the wit of modern man could devise.”

The Mosler Company also gave the National Archives a scale model of the vault, which was on display in the National Archives for many years.

The National Archives no longer uses the Mosler vault to protect the Charters of Freedom. The major renovation of the National Archives Building in the early 2000s included a complete overhaul of the security system safeguarding the Charters.

Read more about the transfer of the documents in the blog post “Carting the Charters.”

Mosler safe being constructed, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167793)

Mosler safe being constructed, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167793)

 

Caption for Charters of Freedom display of the scale model. (National Archives Identifier 12170126)

Caption for Charters of Freedom display of the scale model. (National Archives Identifier 12170126)

Posted in - Cold War, - Constitution, - Declaration of Independence, National Archives History, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

On Exhibit: Abolishing Slavery

On December 6, 1865, with Georgia’s ratification of the 13th Amendment, slavery throughout the United States became illegal.

Joint Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Preserving Slavery, March 2, 1861. (National Archives Identifier 4688370)

Joint Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Preserving Slavery, March 2, 1861. (National Archives Identifier 4688370)

Just a few years earlier, in 1861, Ohio Representative Thomas Corwin proposed—and both Houses of Congress passed—a constitutional amendment that would have done the exact opposite.

Corwin’s amendment read, “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

This would have been the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Before it could be ratified, however, 11 Southern states seceded to form the Confederacy.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, was a step toward abolishing slavery. But it didn’t apply to the loyal border states, and it exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under control of the Union Army.

On January 31, 1865, Congress passed another slavery-related amendment.

Joint Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the United States Constitution Abolishing Slavery, January 31, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 1408764)

Joint Resolution proposing an amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery, January 31, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 1408764)

This one read, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

To make it part of the Constitution, three-fourths of all the states—including those still in rebellion—had to ratify the amendment.

Within a month, 18 of the 27 needed states quickly ratified the amendment, although after the Lincoln’s assassination in April the ratification process stalled.

To force the issue, President Andrew Johnson instituted a requirement that any state that wanted readmission to the union first needed to outlaw slavery. This prompted enough states to act, and on December 6, 1865, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment.

On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward certified the amendment, proclaiming the 13th Amendment had been adopted as part of the U.S. Constitution as of December 6, 1865.

In celebration of the anniversary of the enactment of the 13th Amendment, California’s Certificate of Ratification will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 3, 2015, through January 6, 2016.

Fun Fact: Both President James Buchanan and President Abraham Lincoln signed their respective joint resolutions proposing the amendments. Their signatures, however, were unnecessary as the Supreme Court had ruled in Hollingsworth v. Virginia (1798) that the President has no formal role in the constitutional amendment process.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State ca. 1860-1865. (National Archives Identifier 528347)

William H. Seward, Secretary of State ca. 1860-1865. (National Archives Identifier 528347)

Posted in - Civil War, - Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, News and Events, U.S. House, U.S. Senate | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment