This week’s blog post is by Dr. Debra Newman Ham, a former Archivist at NARA and the editor of the original Black History Guide. Ham is currently a professor of history at Morgan State University
After I graduated as a history major from Howard University in 1970, I spent the summer working as an intern in the special programs and exhibits division at the National Archives. When I left for graduate school at Boston University, NARA arranged from me to work part-time at the Kennedy Presidential Library which, at that time, was located in the Regional Record Center located outside of Boston in Waltham, MA.
I finished my master’s degree at Boston University in 1971 and NARA hired me to work fulltime in DC in 1972. I worked as the assistant to the Black History Specialist, Robert Clarke. By the time I arrived, the staff was already planning the National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans. Participants included scholars such as Mary Frances Berry, Alex Haley, Herbert Gutman and John Blassingame. The conference took place June 4-5, 1973. This predated Haley’s publication of Roots and Gutman’s study, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. The proceedings of this conference are available in a volume edited by Clarke, Afro-American History: Sources for Research (DC: Howard University Press, 1981).
NARA had promised the scholarly community that there would be a series of research guides made available to facilitate research and record accessibility. By the time of the conference, several interns and I had prepared a list of black servicemen in the American Revolution and a list of free black heads of family in the 1790 census. We distributed these lists as handouts to the conference participants.
After making Haley’s acquaintance, he invited me and several other researchers to help him with his Kinte Library Project, which was supposed to result in genealogical center for African American materials. The center never happened but several of the genealogists and historians who worked with Haley including myself founded the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in 1977. That organization is still alive and well and has a national and several local chapters. For information about the society on the web, go to aahgs.org.
I subsequently left Clarke’s office to work in the NARA industrial and social branch. There I prepared finding aids for the Social Security Administration, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Labor. The labor publication was a special list of documents relating to black workers.
In 1978, I was promoted to work exclusively on the preparation of a guide to civilian records for African American history. Clarke was assigned to the military records. I explored civilian records in DC and Suitland over five year period and then worked on the publication of the guide. I was assisted by dozens of patient and not-so-patient archivists and technicians.
Finally, the work, Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives, was published by the National Archives Trust Fund Board in 1984. The guide won awards from both the SAA and MARAC.
I am most pleased about two things. The guide is still in print and steps are now being taken to update it. I earnestly believe in the public’s right to know and I believe that one of NARA’s roles should always be to facilitate researcher access to the nation’s records.