Today’s post was written by Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist for Augmented Processing and Navy Reference at the National Archives at College
“I am pleased to have introduced ‘affirmative action’ into the professional ranks of the National Archives” ~Harold T. Pinkett
Appointed by the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS) Solon J. Buck on April 16, 1942, Harold T. Pinkett became the first African American to hold a professional position at the National Archives. Through his hard work, dedication, and scholarship, Pinkett was promoted to archivist, then supervisor, and eventually deputy director. However, despite his years of experience and educational achievements, he still was not able to ascend to the professional heights of many of his white counterparts, due to racist ideologies and discrimination. This week, the Say it Loud! Employee Affinity Group is celebrating his legacy as the first Black Archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Harold T. Pinkett was hired at the National Archives at a time when the Federal Government was reintegrating. With the issuance of Executive Order 8802, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in defense industries, as well as established the Fair Employment Practice Committee, which banned discriminatory practices in all federal agencies. The AOTUS announced that he would hire more African Americans for custodial and professional positions at the archives, and Pinkett was selected to begin work on the eightieth anniversary of the Emancipation of enslaved men, women, and children in the District of Columbia.
As one the only Black professional at the National Archives, it was challenging to navigate the racial and archival worlds. The other African Americans who were employed at the archives worked as laborers, elevator operators, or custodians. Pinkett’s colleagues were primarily from the South. They often refused to associate and share knowledge with him, forcing Pinkett to develop his archival skills independently. However, during World War II, Roland McConnell and Dwight Hillis Wilson were hired as temporary professional hires at the National Archives. Wilson left the National Archives in 1946 to become the first archivist at Fisk University and McConnell left in 1947 to teach at Morgan College.
The 1960s started to bring about some attitudinal changes in the United States and in the archival field. With the retirements of several archivists at the National Archives, the environment towards the hiring of professionals of color began to change. Although many viewed the archival profession as mostly elitist, male, and white, they understood the need for archivists of color to make records accessible that would tell the stories of all people. During the 1970s, the National Archives hired Thomas C. Battle, Wilda Logan, and Debra Newman Ham to work with archival records. This group of Black archivists were fortunate to be mentored by Pinkett, an experience he was denied.
Harold T. Pinkett retired from the National Archives in 1979, but remained active with the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and assisted with the establishment of the archives at Howard University. He also worked with diversity efforts in the archival field. Pinkett advised a SAA task force, which called for more minorities to be visible in all levels in the archival profession. The committee was chaired by his mentee Thomas C. Battle in 1981. The task force produced “Minorities and the Profession: An Agenda for Action,” which called for a recruitment list of minorities in the archival profession, increased membership in SAA, and more diverse interest in the field. The committee created the Minority Roundtable to discuss these issues, as well as produce a newsletter.
On March 5, 2001, Dr. Michael Kurtz established the Diversity and Upward Mobility Subgroup to develop strategies for the recruitment and retention of minorities at the National Archives. Pinkett’s protegee Wilda Logan Willis, worked along with the subgroup’s co-chairs Edith James and Brenda D. Cooley, and several other NARA employees to accomplish this task. The subgroup had two visions for the National Archives. The first was the Vision for Diversity, which recommended the hiring of more professionals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, women, and people with disabilities. The other, Vision for Upward Mobility, asked for training programs for career development, mentoring, and tuition reimbursement programs..
Diversity efforts at the National Archives continued into the 21st Century and after the senseless murder of George Floyd in 2020, the 10th Archivist of the United States, David Ferrero, chartered the Task Force on Racism. This most recent Task Force was charged with making recommendations to NARA’s internal and external systems, policies, processes, and procedures in support of an equitable environment. Working remotely during the height of COVID pandemic, and also in a divisive political environment, NARA staff produced a report on April 20, 2021, to address the issues of structural racism within the National Archives in three main areas: employee experience, archival description, and museums.
Harold T. Pinkett passed away on March 13, 2001, and still only a few have managed to follow in his footsteps. Through the efforts of Pinkett and his protegees, there has been an increase in the number of archivists of color at the National Archives and other archival institutions around the country. Even with these diversity efforts, there still remains hesitancy and resistance towards these programs, which continues to lead to the low number of diversity in the archival profession. There is still work to be done to create more archives with color.
“Generally I have no regrets for the time that I spent in the National Archives and while I did not attain heights administratively, perhaps, that I would have desired and I think I might have attained had I not been black, I am not bitter about that fact because I think it’s simply another indication of the status of blacks in American society that while they have progressed considerably, there are still frontiers for them to enter and they still simply have to work harder, perhaps, to attain the same levels that others might attain with less effort.” ~Harold T. Pinkett
Visit the Google Arts & Culture Exhibit National Archivist: An Exhibition of Dr. Harold T. Pinkett to learn more about Dr. Pinkett’s legacy.