Afro-American Sources in Virginia.
A Guide to Manuscripts

Michael Plunkett, Editor
University Press of Virginia
© 1995 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
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This Guide is a result of grant support that I received from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy as a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Humanities, but the motivation and the need were established and recognized by historians, archivists, and manuscripts curators long before that. The definition of an archivist is one who cares for records, the person charged with both the preservation of the record and the dissemination of the information contained in the record. Historically this responsibility charged to the archivist has led to the gathering of records primarily belonging to that class of people best prepared by society to chronicle events: the public official, the landowner, the educator, the business and industrial leader. When in the 1960s historians began to question and change their own traditional approach, archivists changed their collecting strategies to correspond to new historical and sociological research and began to look to nontraditional sources for archival records. This new vigor led to a major effort to collect material on the history of Afro-Americans, but that endeavor, though sustained by many institutions, has never garnered the amount and quality of material about Afro-Americans demanded by the historian. The effort to collect archival material documenting the history and culture of Afro- Americans must continue; at the same time existing collections that contain a wealth of Afro-American material must be examined and described. Additionally, Afro-American materials in institutions, such as historically black colleges, where they have long existed but have received little publicity, must be described. I have tried in this work to search for new sources but also to examine collections that may have been overlooked as source material documenting the contribution of Afro-Americans.

The importance of original source materials to historians is obvious. Afro-American historians, especially those writing about American slavery, have long sought and used original source materials. Prominent historians such as John Hope Franklin, Stanley Engerman, Eugene Genovese, John Blassingame, Winthrop Jordan, Nathan Huggins, and Herbert Gutman have relied on these materials to write their story of American slavery and the history of the Afro-American. How could John Hope Franklin have written his biography of the black historian George Washington Williams if he hadn't access to manuscript materials on the man? In fact, Franklin points out that some of his information came from contacting libraries mentioned by Williams in his preface to History of the Negro Race. These libraries were able to check their own archives and uncover correspondence with Williams. The importance of original source material has been noted by business, witnessed by the recent and continuing endeavor by the University Publications of America to microfilm and make available original materials on the subject of plantation slavery in the American South. This is a massive project with a definite financial and staffing commitment, and the end product is extremely expensive but judged worthy of the expense because of the value of the materials on American slavery both for research and pedagogical reasons.

The academic need for materials on American slavery is self-evident. In addition to slavery, other topics, such as civil rights and voting rights, and other histories, such as local, regional, and comparative studies, can be written from materials that not only document Afro-Americans but are generated by them. For example, the papers of Luther Porter Jackson, the noted black historian and educator, at Virginia State University are obviously ripe for research. Another more recent area of interest is Afro-American genealogy. The "Roots" phenomenon excited much interest in black genealogy, and now, after the initial media outburst, there remains a strong interest. Another important need for this work has been expressed by the archival/library profession: more and more library/archive users demand subject access to such materials. This subject access will eventually be satisfied when the massive amount of cataloging data of archives and manuscripts is entered into computer data-bases. But this eventuality is far in the future. As an interim measure, the compilation and publication of subject guides serve to answer the urgent demand, especially for Afro-American materials.

I initially contacted twenty-six institutions in Virginia, including college and university repositories, black institutions, public libraries, and private institutions. My search began in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections where I examined every entry on all Virginia institutions. Comparing those entries with the Directory of Afro-American Resources revealed the deficiencies of that twenty-five-year-old guide. As an example, the Directory lists 20 collections relating to Afro-Americans in the Virginia Historical Society; I was able to identify 173 during my visit. Most of the institutions contacted were manuscript repositories; their collections are family papers and derivative in nature, that is, whites writing about blacks. Most of these collections revealed Afro-American strength in two areas: materials on slavery and materials on the civil rights era. In the beginning of the project the shortage of materials in other areas led me to consider whether the search should be limited to slavery and civil rights, but I decided against that approach, because I knew that Afro-American materials outside of those two areas exist and need to be publicized.

Several types of records were examined.

The collections here are arranged alphabetically by their respective repositories. The collection description, date range, and size refer to the whole collection. The abstracts sometimes are based on a necessarily brief examination; this is especially true of the larger collections which often contain more Afro-American material than is described. Unless otherwise indicated, all place names may be assumed to be in Virginia. If the collection is available on microfilm, the microfilm number has been noted.

This work does not purport to be definitive; it is based solely on the research and interpretation of the compiler. I wish to thank the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy for providing the grant support to accomplish my work and the University of Virginia Library's Faculty Research Committee for granting me additional time to complete the effort.

Michael Plunkett
Curator of Manuscripts
University of Virginia Library

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