Friday, June 26, 2015

Mellon Scholars Program: Restoring Our Historical Memory

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

My name is Hannah Wallace, and I am a rising senior at Temple University right here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Three years ago, through a desire to reexamine the intersecting realities race contributed to my own life as a biracial woman, I was drawn to take on African American studies as my major along with a minor in Sociology. This decision, though focused inward at first, revealed to me a mission—too great for one lifetime to achieve— to do my part in helping to restore the historical memory of African people throughout the diaspora. It is not enough to claim that African American children are miseducated by our school systems and through false representations of ourselves by popular culture. We must take serious action to reverse these mental and spiritual corruptions. This must be done in such a way that will secure a foundation strong enough for the next generation to continue and improve upon though it will continuously be under scrutiny by those who do not understand or wish to understand the purpose of its existence.            

Though still in the process of understanding myself and the ways in which my own talents could most effectively reach the community, I have grown fond of the notions to either teach or possibly take on a curatorial career for my future—to blend the two into a cohesive institution is ideally the long term dream I will hold onto as I develop my skills throughout graduate school. It is for the sake of remembering our ancestors as well as for the need to rekindle the confidence they had within our own communities today, that I have dedicated myself to such a socially and spiritually challenging task.

My applying to the Mellon Scholars Program at the Library Company was initiated by a helpful professor of mine who had heard of the internship and knew that my interests and work experience in archives placed me in a great position to take on such a challenge. Of course the chance to conduct my own research rather than work behind the scenes, especially with such a vast and aged collection, left no question in my mind as to whether or not I would apply for this opportunity. And so, after months of waiting with fingers crossed, here I am, working alongside scholars and mentors who not only are supportive of my every task, but will surely stay lifelong friends after my work at the Library Company of Philadelphia is complete.

Frontispiece from Thomas Prosper Gragnon-Lacoste’s 
Toussaint Louverture,général en chef de l'armée de 
Saint-Domingue,surnommé le premier des noirs    
Paris, 1877.
The independent research project I am pursuing focuses on the pivotal stage of the Haitian Revolution. At this stage, I am examining the crucial decisions made by powerful members of the Haitian population, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and the free Haitian people of color. From this analysis, I will then recognize the lasting effects these resolutions had on the larger Haitian population as well as African people throughout the diaspora. By placing the overall welfare of African people at the forefront, this analysis will give an in-depth assessment as to if and how Haiti progressed throughout this paramount time in history.

I must thank the Library Company of Philadelphia for granting me this valuable experience to explore history as well as prepare myself for the next steps of my college career. I appreciate these tools given to me and cannot wait to apply them to the road ahead.

Hannah Wallace
2015 Mellon Scholars Intern

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Riddle of Independence: Independent but not Free

Danielle Allen will give the Program in African American History’s 2015 Juneteenth Freedom Symposium talk at the Library Company. While in residence, our Mellon Scholars interns read Dr. Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality and prepared a display of items (reproduced below) from the Library Company’s African Americana collection in response to themes in the book.

Independent but not free. What did freedom mean for a 19th-century African American? These four items demonstrate that even free African Americans were vulnerable to racism or sexism. In addition to social discrimination and prejudice, the law itself often failed to protect the rights and safety of free blacks.

Frontispiece from Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Boston, 1875.
In her powerful “Ain’t I a Woman” speech delivered to the 1851 Woman’s Rights Convention in Ohio, Sojourner Truth brought to the forefront the overbearing intersectionalities that black women faced. Whether free or enslaved, African American women were both the color of the oppressed as well as the gender of the subordinate. They were frequently overlooked in the burgeoning women’s rights movement and often sidelined in the antislavery struggle. Dictated to Olive Gilbert and first published in 1850, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth is a biography of this great African American activist.  Narrative describes the Riddle of Independence that Truth faced throughout her life. Even after obtaining her freedom, she was still not seen as a full human being by many in American society.

Illustration from Jesse Torrey, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery 
in the United States. Philadelphia: Jesse Torrey, 1817.
In A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, Jesse Torrey documents the realities of “free” life for African Americans. Rape, murder, assault, and kidnapping into slavery were ever-present possibilities for a free African American in both the North and the South. Laws and the legal process frequently failed to protect African Americans and their tenuous freedom. The image shown here depicts a free black man being attacked by two white men on horses, their fierce faces contrasting with his frightened stance. After the passage of the 1808 federal law banning the importation of African slaves, a black market arose to steal free blacks from the North and sell them into the chattel slavery of the South.

Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Meeting. 
Syracuse, New York, 1851. 
Opponents of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act convened an ad-hoc meeting in Syracuse, New York, in 1851. The meeting’s report reveals the instability of freedom and helps us understand the perceived illegality of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The new law required all law enforcement officials to comply with returning slaves and penalized those who did not, even in states where slavery had been outlawed. With meeting attendees pledging to disobey the law because of its unconstitutionality, the riddle of independence leads us to question whether or not we as a nation trust in the law of the land. 

Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Conventions, 
Held at Seneca Falls & Rochester, N.Y., July & August, 1848
New York: Robert J. Johnston, 1870.
After decades of activism in the antislavery movement, many women reformers began mobilizing their networks to fight for equal opportunity and protection under the law for women. Activists organized the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Conventions documents the course of meetings that resulted in the creation of the Declaration of Sentiments, a platform for the new women’s rights movement. The Declaration of Sentiments mirrored the language of the Declaration of Independence to show how the latter document failed to grant all people the right to freedom irrespective of gender.

Jalyn Gordon, Joshua Johnson, Hannah Wallace, & Dominique Washington
2015 Mellon Scholars Interns 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mellon Scholars Program: The Burgeoning Expedition to Community Camaraderie

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Howdy y’all! My name is Jalyn Gordon, and I am from Fort Worth, Texas. I will be an incoming senior at the University of Houston studying Political Science and African-American Studies, and I am ecstatic to participate in the Mellon Scholars Internship Program! As an individual who has attended schools comprised of a myriad of cultures, I was never fully aware of my “differences” until attending my prestigious majority Eurocentric college preparatory high school—I was never treated the same by my peers and I was confused as to why.

I became deeply fascinated with my own cultural history as a college freshman taking an Introduction to African-American Studies class. Needless to say, my life was never the same, and I understood why I experienced the racial hostilities I endured in high school. I instantly became immersed in the challenges and victories of the Africana Diaspora. This deep fascination was heightened when I became the President of the Black Student Union, an umbrella organization for all campus Africana-centered organizations that focus on unifying the black student/faculty population on campus as a whole. This position (and not entirely taking pleasure in other opportunities such as working for Houston’s City Council) affirmed my passion and devotion to Urban Community Development.

Our African-American Studies Department does an excellent job of communicating internship prospects for its students; and as you all can see, I was a recipient of this efficient communication. As I read over the qualifications and description of the Mellon Scholars Program, I whispered to myself, “Girl there’s no way you’re going to get this.” But, my life motto, ‘What would you do if you knew you could not fail?’ reminded me that with the correct mindset, I am capable of all things. (Imagine how I felt when I opened my acceptance letter!). At the Library Company, I am researching the rise of black communalism and autonomy in Philadelphia in the 1800s. Combining my love of politics, community transformation, and black leadership, this topic has graced me with the chance to read some riveting books; my current favorite, titled Freedom’s Prophet, was written by the fabulous Dr. Newman. 

After I complete my undergraduate career, I would like to immediately attend graduate school to pursue a degree in either Public Policy or Higher Education Administration.  I plan to use my knowledge to revolutionize and revamp the spirit of camaraderie in the black community and/or on higher education campuses.

Jalyn Gordon
Mellon Scholars Intern, Summer 2015