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Preserving Black History, With Help From the Smithsonian

ATLANTA – Like so many Black Americans before him, Marvin Greer figured slavery and migration had hopelessly scattered the heirlooms of his family’s past.

Now he’s found some of them, but he’s not sure how to keep them intact.

The 23-year-old history buff looked on anxiously recently as a Smithsonian Institution worker catalogued and inspected his personal trove of portraits and military discharge papers, part of a museum-led push to help families like Greer’s save their history.

Years after author Alex Haley first encouraged Blacks to research their roots, many are digging into attics and garages to find the rest of their history—captured in letters, portraits, beloved dolls and other long-forgotten heirlooms.

And historians are trying to help: Smithsonian officials hope the “Save Our African-American Treasures” series also will turn up items for a national museum of Black American culture, set to open on the National Mall in Washington by 2015.

The Atlanta stop last month was the sixth in the cross-country, history-gathering trek, which has included events in Chicago, Los Angeles, and parts of South Carolina.

“There is a continuing, growing appreciation that the history of Black America is a history that deserves to be preserved,” said Dr. Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s planned National Museum of African American History and Culture and organizer of the museum’s innovative Treasures series.

He estimates the series has documented and helped families preserve hundreds of items, among them a rare Pullman Porter’s cap and agricultural tools believed to have been used on a rice plantation.

Experts say more families are seeking ways to preserve items once thought to be junk, spurred by increased emphasis on Black Americana and its role in painting a fuller picture of America’s past.

In Atlanta, some came seeking tips for preserving everything from the modern—a beloved Michael Jackson album—to the ancient, including a massive chronicle of slavery’s history dating back to 1859 likely belonging to a Quaker, according to museum officials.

Ninety-nine-year-old Amelia Boynton-Robinson knew the background of the wooden, four-legged sewing kit she toted from Tuskegee, Alabama. It was a gift from the wife of Tuskegee University founder and Black scholar Booker T. Washington, crafted by students around 1900.

“At that time, dress makers were very important and very popular because you didn’t have factories,” Boynton-Robinson explained to a museum worker, as she learned that, despite a missing hinge, the rustic box only needed some dusting and cleaning to keep it sturdy for years to come.

Greer was sent away with tips on investing in acid-free storage boxes and heavy plastic covers. “Anything that’s on your hands (then) on the document will further deterioration,” said Alice Carver Kubik, a professional reviewer under contract to Treasures.

None of the Atlanta collectors struck it rich, learning that great-grandmother’s dog-eared photos or a handful of old coins were not worth millions. But experts say monetary value is secondary among Black families with a growing interest in how their ancestors lived.

They point to the influence of Haley, whose 1976 book Roots both detailed his own painstaking effort to trace his family back to Africa and encouraged Blacks across the country to begin digging into family history many had assumed was lost forever. Years later, Smithsonian experts credit programs like the popular public broadcasting series “Antiques Roadshow” with encouraging Blacks to take things to the next level.

It’s tough to quantify exactly how many Black Americans are researching historic documents or digging up old family belongings to map their past.

But the Internet, with its ever-expanding library of historic records, is the latest thing driving interest, according to Sharon Leslie Morgan, author and operator of

Since its March 2007 launch, the Web site, which offers tips to beginning family research, has gone from less than 100 to almost 3,000 unique site visits per month.

“Genealogy is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, which is probably why a lot of people never really get into it. However, modern technology has made research so much easier,” said Morgan. “There are so many more records available to African-American researchers that didn’t used to be accessible at all.”

For Lynn Brown, discovering heirlooms has helped make real the things she’s found on sites like

Brown spent seven years rooting around on the Web site and eventually looking in the Atlanta archives for details about her family. But it wasn’t until one day, in the North Carolina home of a long lost cousin, that she found the most valuable pieces of her family’s puzzle: pages of a handwritten family tree and pictures of her relatives dating back to 1880.

She thinks many Blacks have tossed items from their past. “They think it’s not worth anything because, for a long time, it was not,” she said.

But for Brown, having links to her family’s past that she can hold in her hands is invaluable.

“I can just feel and see my ancestors,” she said, smiling.

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