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Holding on to African American history

For decades, white institutions and a handful of historically Black
college and university (HBCU) archives have served as the main
repositories for document and artifacts that tell the story of the
history and contributions of people of African descent. But countless
other pieces of Black America’s historical fabric are collecting dust
in church basements or crumbling on bookshelves.

That situation could soon change.

Fisk University, along with a coalition of Black institutions and
international organizations, is gearing up to retrieve, preserve and
distribute the historical and intellectual properties of African
Americans, Organizers of the effort, known as the HOLDINGS Projects
(Holding Our Library Documents Insures Nobility, Greatness and
Strength), envision the formation of a single repository of historical
information documenting the African American experience.

HOLDINGS is an outgrowth of the newly revived Race Relations
Institute at Fisk. Urban City Foods, Burger King, the La-Van and Wendy
Hawkins Foundation, the National Council for Blacks Studies, the
National Council of Negro Women, and other soon-to-be name HBCUs are
initial partners in the preservation project. While Fisk will be the
central repository, collection and preservation sites will be housed at
HBCUs and Black organizations in: Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Tulsa,
Oklahoma; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta;
Tallahassee, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Accra, Ghana.

At Fisk, the high-tech preservation project will, for the
first-time, restore the pages of the worn, fragile Bible given to
Abraham Lincoln by slaves upon their release. It will also provide a
road map for scholars tracking the emergence of African American women
into politics. And it will rescue endangered Black historical
collections from further extinctions.

The HOLDINGS project will include scanning microfilm copies of
books as well as original works. It will store them is digital form so
that they can be distributed — via the Internet — to the nation and
around the world. Modeled after “Project Open book,” a similar document
preservation effort at Yale University, HOLDINGS will also make it
possible for books to be reprinted on high-quality printing systems.

Beginning this summer, the Encyclopedia Africana Project (EAP) in
Accra, Ghana, is expected to transform nearly ten million words in
several history volumes into electronic reading material using
digital-imaging technology. EAP is considered the last major project of
Fisk’s most celebrated graduate, W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the goals of the National Council for Black Studies, a
partner in HOLDINGS, is identifying scholars among its membership who
want to have their books or works-in-progress digitalized for wider
distribution. But while access to new Black scholarship can fuel the
knowledge base and help fledgling Black studies programs to grow, there
is another important reason the council supports the project–so that
Black scholars can maintain control of their own intellectual material.

“It is important for Black people and African people throughout the
diaspora to preserve their writings, to interpret their history, to
publish in a way that will allow us to own out own history. We have to
have control of our intellectual and creative rights,” says Raymond A.
Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute and professor of
social justice at Fisk.

As a result. HOLDINGS is expected to change the course of the
future for Black art, music and scholarship. Winbush notes that for the
first time, scholarly and historical-resources once relegated to
basements, and archives will be available to average households as well
as to academic institutions.

And the project is expected to generate needed revenues for HBCUs
and other (organizations by allowing them to royalties and multimedia
products. Profits from the sale of royalties and multimedia products
will be split three ways — among the owner or producer of the work,
the La-Van and Wendy Hawkins Foundation and HOLDINGS, Inc.

“We will sell royalties and other things to educational
organizations, but the actual HBCU or community organization in the
HOLDING consortium will actually be retaining all of the intellectual
property rights,” Winbush explains.

Too often, according to Winbush, that control has managed to slip
through the hands of African Americans–along with earnings and
royalties. The best example of this is seen in African American music.
Many Black musicians, most notably during the ragtime era around the
turn of the century and the rock-and-roll era of the 1950s, lost rights
to their own music.

“[HOLDINGS] allows us for the firs time to marry our history with
technology to preserve it on a global level,” says Winbush.

The project, however, will not sell original works by African
Americans. That concern hovers over the controversial January deal
between the estate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and
publishing giant Time Warner. The deal involves the multimedia
packaging of King’s memorabilia– speeches, sermon, letters,
photographs, etc. — and critics are concerned it will include the sale
of original documents.

“We aren’t selling Black history,” says Winbush of HOLDINGS. “But
we are finding ways to present our intellectual properties to a wider
audience than already exists. Selling Black history means just that —
selling something you have…. What we are going to do is lend our
property to masses of people through the use of technology.”

The HOLDINGS Project is an attractive venture for HBCUs, especially
those whose archives have sputtered along because they lacked financial
backing and technical expertise. The project will provide both
technical equipment and assistance, says Dr. Mabel Phifer, president of
Maryland-based International Telecommunications Consortium.

Phifer, a consultant to the HOLDINGS Project, got involved because
its organizers “were willing to take the time to properly execute the
preservation project. [They weren’t interested in] selling Black
archives to an outside company, which would then own another huge chunk
of our documents and intellectual property.”

Says Phifer: “We should be the ones who decide who can use our documents and artifacts–and at what cost.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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