Finding History in a Loft: the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers
Jacqueline Goldsby’s remarks May 27 at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature
Like countless scholars across the nation, I'm thrilled that the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers are now available to study and use. You'll soon understand why once you hear from archivist Michael Flug about the scope, range, and depth of the collection's contents.
I'm speaking to you because unlike other scholars, I had the rare chance to be directly involved in bringing the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers to light. From that vantage point, I'd like to take you behind the scenes of what was a two-year process, to recount my own and the University of Chicago's role in making the papers available for public use.
The cool gray, sleek boxes you see shelved on the carts in this room are not what I saw when I first met Bobby Sengstacke to discuss his family's remarkable archive in late June 2006. There were nearly 100 (84 to be exact) boxes of all sizes and shapes stored on racks that ran the width and length of Mr. Sengstacke's large and very humid loft. Mr. Sengstacke knew this setup was dangerous. As a working photographer-artist, he understood that the room's uncontrolled temperatures threatened his family's history: Over time, inks would fade and make letters, speeches, photographs, and other paper-based materials illegible; the sweltering summer heat, followed by the winter's cold, would warp, bend, and undoubtedly turn whole swaths of files brittle and worse, unusable.
For that reason, Ayana Haruun, then the archivist for the Chicago Defender newspaper, urged me to meet with Mr. Sengstacke. Ms. Haruun and I, along with eight PhD students from the University of Chicago, were working together to organize the newspaper's photograph collection that summer. However, Mr. Sengstacke could use my project's help now, Ms. Haruun insisted. And so I called.
I met with Mr. Sengstacke (and his legal advisor, James Carr) to assess what my project could do in his case. "Mapping the Stacks," as its name suggests, aimed to locate and organize archival collections that described the literary, visual, and cultural histories of Black Chicago from the 1930s to the 1970s. As I explained to Mr. Sengstacke and Mr. Carr, the project pinpointed those areas of interest and that time period because, broadly speaking, they reflected my research interests and those of the University of Chicago graduate students who worked on the project with me.
"That's all well and good," I suspected Mr. Sengstacke thought, "but do you know how to organize what's in these boxes?"
Luckily, I could address that reasonable concern. Though my students and I weren't trained archivists, we had read into the literature of archival science and attended workshops on archival processing techniques, led by staff at the University Library's Special Collections Research Center. Moreover, the project had received major funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support our work for three years. Between my team's skill set and subsidized labor power, on the one hand, and the Abbott-Sengstacke family's towering history on the other, it made perfect sense for Mapping the Stacks to at least survey the materials Mr. Sengstacke owned. Once we knew what was in those 84 boxes, he and I could discuss the next steps he might take to get the collection out of the loft.
My first day on the job, though, those boxes' contents left me awestruck. I saw the original certificates of incorporation, which legally established the Chicago Defender as a privately owned entity in 1905. I read John H. Sengstacke's letters to President Harry Truman, urging him to champion the cause of desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces, and I skimmed the transcripts of the federal hearings which followed Sengstacke's request.
Photographs of Robert Abbott and Booker T. Washington, which I'd never seen in any publications about both men, left me speechless; as did images of the Sengstackes at a Kentucky Derby horse race. I was particularly stunned by that photograph. Taken in the 1940s in the Deep South, when Jim Crow segregation was at its heights, I was dazzled to see the ease with which the Sengstackes moved about the world as they chose during those times.
As an English professor, I marveled at Myrtle Sengstacke's collection of the Works of John Ruskin; what were those books doing in her library? What did they suggest about her aspirations and tastes? When Mr. Sengstacke pulled out several cartons packed with films labeled, "Bud Billiken Parade, 1949," "Vacation at Yellow Lake," and "Trip to China, 1973,” I had seen enough—too much—for one day.
But I came back. I spent the next six weeks in Bobby's loft—three days a week, for four to five hours a day—inventorying the boxes' contents. Throughout that time, Bobby, his attorney James Carr, and I discussed and debated what could be done with the collection. We all agreed that it should be placed in a public repository. The question was where? In Chicago, or in a "national" archive on the East Coast?
Those discussions got intense when Martin Luther King Jr.'s family announced that it planned to auction off the Reverend's final trove of papers for an estimate of as much as $30 million. Though it would likely run the risk of removing the collection from Chicago, why shouldn't Mr. Sengstacke sell his collection on the open market? I, for one, couldn't make an argument against selling the collection. After all, just because Black history is priceless, doesn't mean its value should be taken for granted.
To discuss his options with seasoned, objective professionals, I arranged for Mr. Sengstacke to meet the director and associate director of the University of Chicago's Special Collections Research Center. Alice Schreyer and Daniel Meyer met with Mr. Sengstacke and his advisor James Carr to hear them outline their interests and intentions for the collection. Ms. Schreyer's and Mr. Meyer's professional expertise and neutrality set the stage for a wide-ranging discussion of the merits and drawbacks to selling a collection or gifting it to a repository.
Shortly after that meeting, Mr. Sengstacke informed me that he'd made his decision. He would place the collection in a public repository; he would keep the collection in the city of Chicago; and he would gift the papers to the Chicago Public Library's Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.
Once that decision was finalized, in spring 2007, work to organize the collection began. From that point forward, the University of Chicago played key roles in this effort, from two angles:
First, Mapping the Stacks, the project I direct, partnered with the archivists at the Harsh Collection to provide academic-labor power to process the papers. Five students devoted 18 months to this effort. Celeste Moore, Traci Parker, and Marcia Walker organized the manuscripts and memorabilia of the collection. Doron Galili and Christina Petersen processed the moving image collection. It's important to note that this group was able to focus its energies on this one collection because two staff members, Melissa Barton and Mollie Godfrey, kept processing collections at our other partner repositories during this time.
Other than the Harsh archivists who supervised their work (Michael Flug and Beverly Cook), these students know the most about the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers' contents. Among them, they know every piece of paper and every strip of film that's described in the collection's finding aid. For those reasons, I'd invite members of the press to introduce yourselves to the students and ask them about their experiences directly, once the formal presentations are done.
The University of Chicago Library made crucial contributions to this work as well. I've already noted two: consulting with Mr. Sengstacke about his options to place the collection with a repository; and leading training workshops for Mapping the Stacks' staff. Two innovations deserve special emphasis, though.
In a groundbreaking agreement, the University of Chicago Library will create and maintain a permanent digital archive, which will house a large selection of the 4,000 photographs that are a part of the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers. The University Library will designate server space to house the high-resolution master files of the images, and to ensure these files' ongoing accessibility, the University Library will convert the data into new formats if needed, as technology changes.
In return, the University gets the right to allow faculty and students to use these images for coursework without having to travel to the Harsh Collection to view them. I can't stress the significance of this contribution enough: The University of Chicago Library has committed to the Chicago Public Library that it will maintain the digital archive of the Abbott-Sengstacke Family photographs in perpetuity. Forever. Last I heard, forever was a mighty long time.
Finally, the University Library's Digital Library Development Center is creating and will maintain a database to house the finding aid that Mapping the Stacks has produced for the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers, along with the 21 other finding aids we will have completed by the end of our Mellon Foundation Grant. In addition, the Digital Library Development Center has created a website for Mapping the Stacks (mts.lib.uchicago.edu), where all of our finding aids, including the guide to the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers, can be found. Again, I can't stress the importance of the Library's commitment to maintaining these resources—Mapping the Stacks' website and the project's finding aid database—in perpetuity.
Judith Nadler, the University Library's Director; Alice Schreyer, Director of the Special Collections Research Center; Elisabeth Long and John Jung, who are responsible for developing Mapping the Stacks' website, are also here today. They can answer any questions you might have about the University Library's roles to make this collection accessible to the public.
Sharing this "behind-the-scenes" account with you, I'm at once proud of and humbled by the labor that's gone into this endeavor. I'm proud, because the collection's availability affirms what I, as an scholar and as a faculty member of the University of Chicago, understand my life's work to be, in the broadest sense: to recover and understand the traditions and ideas that enable human endeavor in the world. As they're chronicled in this collection, the lives and careers of Robert Abbott, John Sengstacke, and Myrtle Sengstacke will change how we understand African American—and, indeed, American—family life, journalism, and politics over the course of the 20th century. I'm proud that the University of Chicago has contributed so much toward recovering and preserving this legacy.
For that same reason, I'm humbled by the lessons this collection has to teach us. I hope that my students and I will continue to pursue intellectual projects that make higher learning accessible beyond the academy's walls. I hope that institutions like my own, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Public Library, will continue to support the organizational partnerships that promoting discoveries like the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers requires. Finally, I hope all of us will hear what these archival boxes—so neat, so clean, so sturdy—cry out for us to remember: History is fragile; history is elusive; and history demands our constant vigilance and care. None of us should take for granted how books, newspapers, magazines—and, rare archival collections like the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers—get into our hands to read and use in repositories like the one we're in today.
I know, then, that you join me in thanking Robert Sengstacke for giving the city of Chicago his family's papers. By doing so, his gift also affirms the vital and ongoing roles which libraries and universities play in shaping what we're able to know and how we come to know it.
Here's to keeping the dustbins—and lofts—of history empty.
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