Students, scholars explore African-American archives in Chicago libraries

UChicago serves as host institution for Black Metropolis Research Consortium

(From left): Black Metropolis Research Consortium fellows Sonja Williams, James West and Douglas Williams discuss their research at a community presentation event at the Stony Island Arts Bank.
Photo by
Jean Lachat
Andrew Bauld
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesNews Office

Second-year College student Megan Naylor spent the past summer as an intern in the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University, organizing a new collection of materials from Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

The internship was part of a program offered by the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, a Chicago-based association of libraries, universities and archival institutions, including the University of Chicago. The consortium members hold collections related to African-American and African diasporic culture, history and politics, with a special focus on materials relating to Chicago.

Naylor hadn’t considered a career in archival research before the internship, but she now sees herself as possibly entering the field. She recently was selected for a second internship with the archives at the Chicago History Museum, which is a member of the consortium.

“I really like the internship program because I think it’s important getting young African-American students into a field where they are underrepresented,” Naylor said. “It’s also doing good work preserving history and giving people access to it.”

UChicago is the host institution for the consortium, which was founded in 2006 by then Dean of the Humanities Danielle Allen. Brenda Johnson, Library Director and University Librarian, said it is an important part of civic engagement initiatives for the Library and the University.

“It gives us the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in the Chicago region, to forge stronger connections with the Chicago community, and to offer unique research and internship opportunities to undergraduate students, graduate students and scholars from University of Chicago and around the world,” Johnson said.

In addition to preserving and preparing historical materials related to African-Americans for research, the consortium is focused on training new archivists through their Archie Motley Archival Internship Program, designed to address the underrepresentation of people of color in the field.

“We are seeking to diversify the profession and really provide exposure to students,” said Andrea Jackson, the executive director for the consortium and former head of the Archives Research Center at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. “We want students of color to go into fields like archives or library science or museum studies.”

Jackson hopes to build upon the success of the consortium, while offering new opportunities for future archivists by extending the internship program.

“Right now we are working with undergrads, but we’re hoping to grow the program and work with graduate students, as well as reaching out to high school-level students to share what we do as archivists within the profession.”

Summer fellowship program brings researchers to Chicago

For more than a decade, the consortium has worked to preserve the archives of the African-American experience in Chicago while extending opportunities in the field for undergraduate and graduate students and offering research opportunities to scholars from around the world.

Researchers also can take advantage of the wealth of collections available at the consortium’s member institutions through a summer program that has supported 95 fellowships since 2008. Among the valuable resources held by consortium members are the Ida B. Wells Papers at the Special Collections Research Center at UChicago Library and the Harold Washington and Timuel D. Black Jr. papers at the Chicago Public Library.

One of this year’s fellows was Sonja Williams, a professor of communications at Howard University. Twenty years ago she produced a documentary for NPR on affirmative action in higher education, using UChicago as a case study. This past summer, she conducted archival research at UChicago on student experiences in the 1960s and 1970s when affirmative action policies were instituted at the University.

Williams said she benefited from the resources of several member institutions, including Special Collections at UChicago Library.

“Resource-wise it’s rich being able to have access and utilizing the minds of the archivists at the institutions,” Williams said. “Being able to collaborate and hear about projects from scholars and other fellows was fantastic.”

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