KETR

African-American History Collection gives artifacts new life

Feb 23, 2016

For years, documents vital to the history of African-Americans in Northeast Texas gathered dust in storage or were known only to a few people. The African-American History Collection, part of the Northeast Texas Digital Collections at Texas A&M University-Commerce, provides an online archive that allows people around the world to see historic photographs, peruse school yearbooks, read church publications and hear oral histories.

 Audio transcript

Andrea Weddle: Wow - Someone accessed the Booker T. Washington yearbook 500 times last month, and that tells me that someone found something.

Mark Haslett: The African-American History Collection at Texas A&M University-Commerce is an online resource that’s free and open to the public.

Weddle: We found so many incredible things. It really a fun project to work on. I'm from Northeast Texas - I'm from Paris - so I had sort of a personal connection to the history that we were discovering.

Haslett: That’s Andrea Weddle, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the university. Her office is in the James Gee Library but, most of the items shown in the African-American History Collection remain physically in the possession of people and community institutions around the region. Those items have been scanned or photographed and made into a digital archive.

Weddle: One really good example came from the Delta County Public Library in Cooper. I was going thougha filing cabinet and I realized they had had these little cards, about four inches by five inches. And they were scholastic census cards. And it had the student's name, parents' name, address, parents' occupation - but we also realized - I realized that there were white cards and then there were pink cards. And I started looking at them and I realized the pink cards were for the black students. And so we went through and we pulled out all the pink cards and we digitized the entire scholastic census records for the African-American students in Delta County. That was a really incredible find, because it starts, say in the 1920s and goes to about the 1960s, so you can at times trace the family's movement around the county. So they were in, say, Pecan Gap, and then they moved to Ben Franklin and then they moved to Cooper. So, that was a really fun find.

Haslett: The project began while researchers were working on a general history-gathering effort funded by a grant from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Weddle says they noticed a lack of African-American stories in the most obvious historical sources. That gap in local historical records prompted university staff to look harder.

Weddle: We would talk to the public library director and say, "Who can we talk to?" And she would put us in touch with someone who would put us in touch with someone else and finally we realized that the collections, they're still with the families; they're with the churches. Some communities have alumni associations from the segregated schools. So it was a matter of following the bread crumbs and finding the individuals who had these collections and then working with them directly to get the items scanned and placed online.

Haslett: Even those items that were held by public libraries weren't necessarily available to the public. Weddle says that many artifacts were kept in storage because library staff were worried about the items being damaged or lost. And so, many forgotten treasures that had been stashed into boxes or cabinets are now available for the world to see again, online. And while the A&M-Commerce African-American History Collection is mostly scans and photos, not all the items in the archive are images. There are oral-history audio files as well. If you or someone you know has something that could be added to this archive, you're encouraged to get in touch with Weddle. You can find her contact information along with a few sample images from the African-American History Collection at our website, KETR.org.

North by Northeast is a thrice-weekly news feature presenting "Stories that matter to Northeast Texas." Topics include development, education, health care, the environment and the economy. Sports and fine arts are also featured. Hosted by Mark Haslett.

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