Today’s blog was written by Alan Walker, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
From the moment our search room doors opened to the public in late 1936, family history was a big draw for the public. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1938, nearly one quarter of the admission cards issued went to “students of genealogy.”
64-NA-324 (investigators in Central Search Room, ca. 1940)
Coincident with this was a burgeoning interest in the African American experience in America. On its 75th anniversary, the Emancipation Proclamation went on display here.
The Washington Post, January 26, 1937(c)
Later that year, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History held its annual meeting in Washington, DC.
The Washington Post, November 1, 1937(c)
Archivist James R. Mock attended, and discussed relevant records in the Archives’ custody:
RG 64, A1 8, file “Mock, James” Faculty photo, 1927 yearbook
His address would be published in the association’s Journal of Negro History in January 1938. Mock highlighted the records of Congress, various executive branch agencies, and some of the emergency agencies established during World War I, such as the Food Administration. Here is an excerpt:
Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, October 31 – November 3, 1937
Ten years, and another world war later, archivist Paul Lewinson, in cooperation with the American Council of Learned Societies, compiled this guide to records of interest to the scholar:
64-NA-1-220 Paul Lewinson, 1951
Organized chronologically by time periods, with entries arranged by record group, the guide also included a section with records of particular interest to the genealogist:
But for those African Americans who wished to find out more about their ancestry, the way forward was fraught. Genealogical organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution resisted integration.
The Washington Post, November 21, 1960(c)
But the desire to simply know more compelled many people forward – to question, demand, and discover.
The Washington Post, November 7, 1962(c)
The Washington Post, June 16, 1963(c)
In 1963, on the Emancipation Proclamation’s centennial, Attorney General Robert Kennedy came to the Archives and spoke of its legacy, and of still so more to be done.
Dr. Charles H. Wesley, President of Central State College, speaking at Emancipation Proclamation Centennial, January 4, 1963
And this notable observance, as well as the centennial of the Civil War, helped to spur more use of our records.
Jet, February 20, 1964
During this time, a writer named Alex Haley had started doing research at the National Archives. Like so many, he was motivated by tantalizing yet fragmentary family stories. On his many visits, he may have consulted this guide.
Haley made a successful living by interviewing notable figures, like Malcolm X. Their interview sessions became a bestselling book.
Haley also interviewed George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, for Playboy magazine.
This excerpt set the tone for the ensuing conversation.
While Rockwell would be killed by a disgruntled former Party member the following year, Haley continued researching, writing, and sharing his experiences. During the Poor People’s Campaign on the Mall in the spring of 1968, photographer Jill Freedman was there to chronicle its daily rhythms.
And Alex Haley was there, too.
With interest in Afro-American history burgeoning, the Archives’ Robert L. Clarke proposed a conference to discuss research sources among federal archives.
Later Clarke compiled the participants’ essays into this volume:
Haley attended the conference, and spoke of his story:
A few years later, he published another book.
Roots quickly became a bestseller. And the effects reverbated.
A TV miniseries was not long in coming.
Airing on consecutive nights over that week, “Roots” took the country by storm. The Archives welcomed Haley and some of the cast for a preview.
And the Archives saw a huge increase in reference service as a result.
And the effects weren’t just felt in the U.S. A British publisher expanded its operations owing to the intense interest.
But on this side of the pond, in a moment of powerful symbolism, the “Roots” phenomenon breached an elite bastion of (hitherto) white heritage.
On the 40th anniversary of the publication of Roots, this story explored its impact:
Everyone was talking about ‘Roots’ in 1977 — including Ronald Reagan – The Washington Post