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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 6, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 41
'Afro' Archives to Be Unlocked By New Grant

On April 7, 1945, Easter Paraders in Baltimore included military men and well-dressed woman in their latest spring finery.
Photo courtesy Afro-American Newspapers

Searchable guides will give access to photos and writings

By Pamela Higgins
Sheridan Libraries

The Johns Hopkins University has been awarded $476,000 to collaborate with the Baltimore-based Afro-American Newspapers to open the 115-year-old newspaper company's historic archives to access by scholars and others.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project will involve the Center for Educational Resources at the university's Sheridan Libraries and the Center for Africana Studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

"We are delighted to be part of this initiative," said Winston Tabb, the Sheridan Dean of University Libraries at Johns Hopkins. "It is an unparalleled opportunity to create a training program for students at Johns Hopkins and other Baltimore area colleges and universities that combines archival theory and hands-on practice in providing access to a nationally significant archive."

Founded in 1892 by John Murphy Sr., a former slave, the Afro is the nation's longest-running family-owned African-American weekly newspaper. The archives, comprising 2,055 linear feet of boxed materials, contain a rich and unique collection of letters, business records, journals, personal correspondence and photographs. The materials not only document the history of the newspaper company but also chronicle its role as an advocate for social change in Baltimore and the nation.

Large collections such as the Afro's require what archivists call "finding aids," descriptive information about each item, to enable scholars to efficiently mine their contents. But finding aids currently exist for only a small portion of the Afro-American collection, rendering it a hidden treasure, said archivist Marilyn Benaderet, who joined the staff of The Afro-American in 2006. Students trained by the project will create finding aids and post them online for scholars anywhere to use.

"The archives contain the writings of many notable black journalists and intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, William Worthy and J. Saunder Redding, as well as thousands of extraordinary photographs," Benaderet said. "The creation of searchable guides that will be freely available on the Internet will enable users anywhere in the world to mine the riches of this exceptional resource."

The Mellon grant will support the development of a new archival training practicum and internship program that will train students in collection assessment, description and processing. Faculty at Johns Hopkins and Morgan State University will collaborate with the Sheridan Libraries staff and Benaderet at The Afro-American to teach the practicum.

"This project will enable us to forge a strong interdisciplinary team of faculty, librarians, archivists and students to explore and describe the wealth of materials in this archive," said Candice Dalrymple, associate dean of university libraries and director of the Center for Educational Resources. "We hope to attract student interns not only from Johns Hopkins but also from other colleges and universities here in Baltimore, allowing us to tap into the strengths of the city's higher education community."

Ben Vinson, director of the Center for Africana Studies and professor of Latin American history at Johns Hopkins, said the grant will contribute significantly to the Diaspora Pathways Initiative, a long-term research and instructional effort housed at the center.

"The center is developing new ways of thinking about scholarship and research, particularly in forms that accentuate community input and engagement," Vinson said. "This grant offers a giant step forward in this direction. It is a multilevel partnership with a genuine community treasure — The Afro-American Newspapers.

"At the core of the broader Diaspora Pathways Initiative is the quest to understand how African-Americans have, historically and currently, perceived their roles in an ever-changing world — one that is affected by processes such as immigration, the quest for full citizenship rights, multiculturalism, globalism and internal regional change," he said. "Through the unprocessed archives of the Afro, we can obtain a new and privileged view, and ultimately think differently, about blackness in Baltimore."

The internship program will begin in January 2008 and will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students. Processing will begin with the photographs, currently the most sought-after resource, Benaderet said. Internships will be available on a part-time basis during the academic year and on a full-time basis during the summer to appeal to the broadest cross section of talented students.

As finding aids are created, they will be entered into a permanent database, searchable via the Web, ensuring both accessibility and long-term preservation of the records. The libraries and the Krieger School will continue to underwrite summer internships and the course practicum at the conclusion of the three-year Mellon grant.

For Vinson, the partnership between an archival repository, a university library, local educational institutions and an Africana Studies Center offers an interesting model for future trajectories of black studies programs. "As these primary source materials are rendered more accessible to the black studies and humanities curriculum, we can experiment and develop new pedagogical techniques," he said. "I hope that the scope of the project's work will transcend the university and the Baltimore community and be beneficial to the broader scholarly community."

Jake Oliver, publisher of the Afro, said, "With nearly 115 years of existence, The Afro-American Newspapers have perhaps the largest single source of African-American history on the planet. We've long recognized the value of our archives and have made some progress not only in chronicling our items but also in using our archives to provide assistance to researchers, students and history enthusiasts. This collaboration with librarians and faculty at Johns Hopkins and Morgan State is an exciting and significant step toward our goal of sharing our history with the global community."


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