For a period of time in the late 1980s (when the Barker Texas History Center had not yet been merged into what is now the Briscoe Center) renowned historian John Hope Franklin was a frequent visitor to the reading room as he researched his book, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Dr. Franklin and I became lunch partners during this time, and he was one of a handful of people who convinced me of the need to broaden the center’s profile and bring more attention to our extensive and invaluable Southern history collections, which include the famed Natchez Trace Collection. Dr. Franklin’s friendly critique of the center was that our focus needed to better reflect our total collections—in other words, we needed to acknowledge that we were not simply collecting, preserving, and making available the history of Texas or the South, but we were instead amassing the raw materials necessary for telling a much broader, national story. Indeed Dr. Franklin’s ’s own work, certainly rooted in the South and in the Black experience, was also a quintessentially American story. He was right, and I’ve spent over thirty years trying to heed his advice.
This issue of the center’s e-news focuses on the center’s African American history resources, which remain very much available for teaching and research both on campus and beyond. The center has collected these materials to educate all of us—not only about our nation’s shameful record of racial injustice and oppression, but also to highlight the significant contributions that Black Americans have made to our nation. And while this is easily the longest e-newsletter we’ve ever produced, I would be remiss not to tell you about some of our collections that are not featured.
They include the Texas Works Projects Administration’s (WPA) Archive of Slave Narratives, which includes the recollections of formerly enslaved individuals recorded in the 1930s and 1940s; the Almetris Duren papers, which document racial segregation and integration at the University of Texas at Austin; the papers of civil rights leader Dr. James Farmer, who was the longtime leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); the photo archive of Flip Schulke, who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s personal photographer and which contains the world’s largest collection of photographs of Dr. King and his activities; and many, many other resources.
While the center remains temporarily closed to visitors, researchers can still access over 150,000 photographs, documents, and other materials in our online media repository. We’re also planning this fall to find new ways of making our collections alive to online audiences through interactive graphics, short videos, webinars, and educational mini-sites. Nevertheless, staff at the center remain on hand to assist students, scholars, and teachers here on campus who need access to the center’s collections. Please send inquiries to Ben Wright, the center’s associate director for communications, (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Margaret Schlankey, the center’s head of public services (email@example.com).
The center’s collections can also be accessed through our publications program, which includes books such as Selma 1965 and Destiny of Democracy. The latter includes a foreword by Congressman John Lewis, who sadly passed away last week. I was privileged to meet Congressman Lewis in 2014 during the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time, the center had an exhibit of Spider Martin’s photographs on display. In 1965, Martin had documented “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when state troopers brutally attacked a group of peaceful protestors. At the time, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of the protest’s organizers.James ‘Spider” Martin Photographic Archive. di_09242.
Walking into the LBJ Library, Lewis was struck by an image of himself on display in the center’s exhibit. It shows a youthful Lewis in a light coat standing next to the Reverend Hosea Williams, who holds his nose in anticipation of tear gas. Lewis—fueled by a sense of justice, brimming with determination, and committed to both radical change and nonviolence—stares down the state troopers. He is composed and resolute. But without a doubt, he was also scared, cognizant of what was likely to happen next, and unsure of whether SNCC’s advocacy would be successful or even appreciated.
Martin’s images were published nationally, and they shocked the American public. Ultimately, Bloody Sunday paved the way for the subsequent Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and helped to galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act that was passed in August 1965.
Lewis was glad to know that Martin’s photographs were being preserved at the center and shared through exhibits and publications. He hoped that Martin’s images would “educate and sensitize unborn generations” about the civil rights movement. Part of the center’s mission is to contribute to this hope. For that reason, the center’s civil rights and social justice collections are actively used in teaching at the University of Texas of Austin campus and in schools and colleges across the world.
America today finds itself in a moment fraught with danger but also bursting with the very real possibility of increased solidarity and empathy through a heightened awareness of its own injustice. I believe that within such a moment, historical research can play a positive role by rooting our discussions around American values, identities, and origins in the evidence of the past that we can unearth in archives. The collections housed at the Briscoe Center tell us that, unfortunately, turbulent times in our history are nothing new. But they also show us that fierce resistance to inequality, authoritarianism, and apathy have always been present—and often successful. It is my hope that the material discussed in this e-newsletter—beautiful, inspiring, disturbing and frustrating, just like the history it documents—can play a greater role in the education
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History