Pieces of Black History You Can Hold in Your Hands

Through archival collections, Duke University Libraries preserves connections to Black culture

Items from Duke's library collection
John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture Director John Gartrell.

“I told her ‘You know, we’re going to put this back, but you can come see it any time,’” Gartrell said. “And sure enough, maybe two weeks later, she came back and just wanted to look at the book again.”

Gartrell oversees the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture which, since its creation in 1995, has collected, preserved and promoted primary sources within the Duke University Libraries collection that advance the “scholarship of the history and culture of Africa and people of the African Diaspora in the Americas.”

“The difference between an archive and a museum is that we want you to touch our things,” Gartrell said. “Here, we encourage you to hold them and get to know what’s within.”

February is Black History Month, which began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. As we celebrate Black culture, check out a few of the items in the Duke University Libraries archival collections that tell the story of the Black experience. You are welcome to see for yourself in the library’s reading room.

Words of a Civil Rights Icon

Printed in 1893, this pamphlet from civil rights icon Ida B. Wells-Barnett is part of Duke's collection. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a fearless crusader for the rights of African Americans and women. She brought attention to the threats of violence – specifically lynching – facing Black citizens.

While living in Chicago in 1893, Wells-Barnett authored and published a pamphlet, one of which is in Duke’s collection, criticizing the negative portrayal of the Black community at the World’s Columbian Exposition, the massive world’s fair that drew thousands to the city.

Wells-Barnett handed out copies of the pamphlet, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” at the fair with the help of abolitionist and supporter Frederick Douglass, who wrote the introduction.

In the 81-page pamphlet, Wells-Barnett detailed both the post-emancipation struggles faced by Black Americans – including statistics on lynching – and the triumphs, citing statistics about the number of Black teachers, physicians, lawyers and other professionals, as well as sharing charts showing Black wealth and patents earned by Black inventors.

“The exhibit of the progress made by a race in 25 years of freedom as against 250 years of slavery, would have been the greatest tribute to the greatness and progressiveness of American institutions which could have been shown the world,” Wells-Barnett wrote in the preface.

The pamphlet has been at Duke since 2015, when it arrived as part of a collection of more than 8,600 rare books, manuscripts and artifacts related to women’s history given to Duke by activist and collector Lisa Unger Baskin.

This image from Duke University Libraries' Michael Francis Blake photo collection shows an unidentified child in Charleston, South Carolina.

Glimpses of Past Lives

In the early 20th century, Michael Francis Blake operated a photography business in Charleston, South Carolina. As one of the city’s first Black studio photographers, Blake welcomed many of the area’s Black citizens to sit in front of his camera.

Duke has nearly 120 of Blake’s images in its collection which are available to browse. The collection is also available to view online.

The images range from posed portraits of individuals and families taken at Blake’s Sumter Street studio, which operated from roughly 1912 to 1934, to more relaxed and candid photos taken outdoors depicting the men, women and children of Charleston’s Black community.

While only 36 of the people in the photos have been identified, the collection offers a personal look into the lives of Black citizens living in a southern city during the Jim Crow era.

“This is a good example of how some of our collections are about well-known figures, but others are about people who are less well-known living their lives,” said Duke University Archivist Valerie Gillispie. “These are the people at risk of being forgotten.”

First-Person History

A 1793 version of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is part of Duke University Libraries collection. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Originally published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano gave readers a jarring look into the lives of enslaved Africans. Written in first-person by Equiano, a formerly enslaved resident of London at the time, the memoir tells the story of Equiano’s early life in West Africa, his enslavement in Barbados, his experiences laboring on ships traveling around Europe and North America, and how he eventually purchased his freedom.

Duke’s collections feature an edition of the book published in 1793, which visitors can thumb through by appointment at the Rubenstein Library.

“He was one of the more well-known people of African descent who lived in Europe and this is his first-person story,” Gartrell said of Equiano. “He ended up sailing around the western world with his owner and essentially tells his story about how he ended up as an enslaved person.”

Equiano’s story is part of the John Hope Franklin Research Center’s Black Voices collection, which contains several biographical and autobiographical accounts of the Black experience from slavery to the present.

Flyers from the Black Student Alliance collection offer a look at campus life in the 1980s and 1990s. Photo by Stephen Schramm

Artifacts of Campus Life

From the papers of leaders to artifacts of daily life at the university, a primary function of the Duke University Archives is to collect and preserve pieces of Duke’s history. The story of Duke’s Black student experience can be told through many of the items in the Duke University Archives’ collection.

A look at campus life from the perspective of Black students can be found in the records of the Black Student Alliance. The Duke University Archives collection features event programs, news clippings and flyers, including the ones shown above from the late 1990s.

“These might be things that are pretty ephemeral and pinned up on a bulletin board, but they can tell you so much about what people were thinking about, what people were talking about and what kinds of activities students were engaging in,” Gillispie said.

Items from the collection, including flyers, are also available to view online.

‘Palatable’ History

The National Council of Negro Women's 1958 cookbook mixed member-submitted recipes with brief history lessons. Image courtesy of Duke University Libraries.

Since its founding in 1935 by activist and educator Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women has supported education, entrepreneurship, health equity and community engagement initiatives for Black women.

In 1958, the organization sought to inspire its membership, and preserve history, through the uniting factor of food. The National Council of Negro Women’s Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, which can be found in Duke’s collection, is both a compilation of recipes sourced from members across the country and a celebration of people the book’s editor, Sue Bailey Thurman, describes as the “great spirits of the past.”

Many of the recipes are linked to important Black figures in American history such as cornbread honoring underground railroad hero Harriet Tubman, a “johnny cake” recipe inspired by Revolutionary War fighter Crispus Attucks and sea food dishes dedicated to Robert Smalls, who escaped enslavement by stealing a Confederate ship during the Civil War.

“The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, published today, is the result of knowledge accumulated through the years and presented in what we consider a new, unique and ‘palatable’ approach to history,” Thurman wrote in the book’s introduction.

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