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by on September 23, 2014

written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland


For many years, employees at the National Archives have participated in the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) annual conferences. They’ve shared information on records relating to the black experience that can be found at the National Archives. Panels in the past have addressed various topics including pension files, naval records, African-American women, civil rights, the Panama Canal, and genealogy.

ASALH 2014

ASALH 2014 panel on records relating to the black experience at the National Archives. Pictured left to right Trichita Chestnut, Tina Ligon, Lopez Matthews, and Netisha Currie.

ASALH was founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915 to celebrate the legacy of the African-American experience. The mission of the organization is to promote research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about black life, history and culture to the global community. The annual conferences allowed scholars, researchers, and students to come together and discuss issues and scholarship on black life. The theme this year is “Civil Rights in America” and the conference is taking place in Memphis, Tennessee at the historic Peabody Hotel.

Carter G. Woodson

Dr. Debra Newman Ham compiled and published Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives in 1984. In 2012, a committee of about 20 NARA employees, which include archivists, archives specialists, students, and interns assisted with the update of the guide by writing descriptions, editing entries, and contributing to the Rediscovering Black History blog. The new black history guide will be web base and include information on both civilian and military records at NARA, as well as information on related electronic records, moving images, photographs, sound recordings, and a few artifacts.

This year, Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Ms. Netisha Currie, and former NARA employee Dr. Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. presented a glimpse into the development of the black history guide at the National Archives, along with the factors leading to its creation and issues that have emerged from the project. Each panelists discussed an aspect of the relationship between black history and the National Archives. Lopez spoke about the importance of black history in the archival world. Tina updated the audience on the progress of the guide and showcase select textual series of interest that will be included in the black history guide. Trichita demonstrated how classified records become declassified and how these records will be added to the new black history guide. Lastly, Netisha discussed the creation and function of the webpage and introduced the audience to the Rediscovering Black History public blog. In addition, she solicited suggestions from the audience on what they would like to see with the online resource.


The Rediscovering Black History: Updates to “Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives” presentation took place in Memphis, Tennessee at the Peabody Hotel on Friday, September 26, 2014

Today’s blog was written by Kevin L. Bradley, Archives Technician in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland


The economic hardship of the Great Depression affected everybody, but it was especially harsh for African Americans who were already suffering from unfair employment, housing, and educational practices. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to assist with the needs of Americans during the time of economic crisis. The WPA provided jobs to needy men, women, and youth to work mostly on public construction projects. The agency also gave employment opportunities of struggling artists, writers, actors, and musicians. Many of those employed by the WPA were African Americans.

great depression

The film We Work Again, 1937(NAID 12322) was created by the WPA to promote the involvement and activities of African Americans who were employed with this agency. This film shows the role of WPA programs that assisted African Americans during the Great Depression. The first reel depicts African Americans waiting in breadlines, receiving household and health care training, and working on public construction projects. The second reel highlights African Americans artists, musicians, writers, and actors. The film contains footage of the all-black version of Macbeth. Some of the black performers were Juanita Hall, Alma Dickson, Bertram Holmes, Zola King, Josephine Williams, and Wilhelmina Williams.

Click here to view the 15 minute clip of  “We Work Again”

Today’s Blog Post was written by Patrice Brown, Archivist (Special Assistant) in the Evaluation and Special Projects Division, National Declassification Center at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

August 15, 2014, marked the 100th Anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal.  So, it would seem like an appropriate time to continue my dialogue about the records in the National Archives that deal with the diverse nationalities that were responsible for the Panama Canal’s construction and maintenance.  Last year, in the “Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards (Part 1) and (Part 2)” blogs, I discussed the limited amount of information on West Indian Workers found in the Service Record Cards (NAID 7226556) series, even though they were the largest group of people employed by the Panama Canal.

Street Scene (NAID 535444)

Street Scene (NAID 535444)

However, there are other series in RG 185 Records of the Panama Canal that relate to the employment of West Indians in the Canal Zone.  These records are not as voluminous or as extensive as those for the white employees, but they still reveal much about the occupations and backgrounds of the West Indian workers.  Most West Indians were employed in manual intensive positions, but without their labor there would not have been a Panama Canal.  Therefore, it is fitting as we celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal that we also highlight the West Indian workers whose blood, sweat, and tears built it.

There are a number of series that relate to West Indian employees within RG 185.  These series include Applications for Photo-Metal Check, 1918-1919 (NAID 6821421); Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 (NAID 7226555); Sailing List of Contract Laborers, 1905-1913 (NAID 7226554); and Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913 (NAID 7351398).  All four series listed above are scheduled to be moved to the National Archives at St. Louis, MO later this year and but can now be found on the FamilySearch website. [Click on View Images in this Collection to see the digitized series]


Application for Photo Metal Check for Raphael Septer (NAID 6821421)

Application for Photo Metal Check for Raphael Septer (NAID 6821421)


West Indians came from Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, Martinique, and Trinidad.  They came to the Canal Zone looking for better employment opportunities and improved working conditions.  But once they were employed with the Panama Canal Company, West Indian workers also experienced racial discrimination.  A lot of these men were employed as laborers to dig, clear the land, and level or grade the earth in order to build the Miraflores Locks or the Gatun Dam.  Very few, if any, whites were assigned these types of jobs.  The races were segregated with people of color getting lower wage jobs, poorer working conditions, and inferior housing than the white employees.  This discrimination is documented in the General Correspondence, 1905-1914 (NAID 1065499) and in the General Records, 1914-1960 (NAID 7491558).  There is a subject index for these two series that lists topics such as laborers quarters, rates of pay for manual labor, colored schools, and colored towns that discuss these unequal conditions.

There are other records in our custody that can add not only to our knowledge about West Indian employees but all employees that lived within the borders of the Canal Zone.  We sometimes lose sight of the fact that employees in the Canal Zone married and raised families in the Canal Zone.  Generations of men and women married, had children, and died there before the canal was turned over to Panama in 2000.  We have records that document these phases of their lives such as Marriage Licenses, 1904-1979 (NAID 7694692) and Clergy Marriage Registration Books, 1904-1979 (NAID 7542706).  These records list such information as the bride’s and groom’s names, the names of the witnesses, and the date of the marriage.

West Indian Wedding Party (NAID 535444)

West Indian Wedding Party (NAID 535444)

We also have a fragmentary set of Registers of Birth, 1910-1928 (NAID 7351411); Records of Deaths, 1905-1949 (NAID 7387658); and Death Certificate Cards, 1914-1915 (NAID 7408557).  The birth records list such information as the father’s name, the father’s nationality, the child’s birth date, and a registration number.  The death records list information concerning the deceased such as name, date of death, grave number, nationality, cause of death, age, color/race, sex, and place of death.  The marriage, birth, and death records apply to individuals who lived within the Canal Zone.  Those workers who lived in Panama and commuted to the Canal Zone were governed by the laws of Panama and their vital records are in custody of the Panamanian Government.

I have cited some, not all major series of records found in the custody of the National Archives that document the contributions of the West Indian workers to the building of the Panama Canal.  I hope this brief blog will inspire others to come in and do more research into this important aspect of American history.

Three Civil Rights Workers

by on August 12, 2014

Today’s blog was written by Damon Turner, summer intern at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and doctoral student at Morgan State University


Freedom Summer or the Mississippi Summer Project was a time of great intrigue and courage.  Black and White Americans who witnessed the horrors of Jim Crow, attempted to change America for the better.  Freedom Summer is primarily recognized by three key events: the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP); the establishment of Freedom Schools along with the registration of Black voters; and the brutal murder of three civil rights workers.

Missing Civil Rights Workers

Missing Civil Rights Workers

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers investigated the burning of a Black church, where a civil rights rally took place days earlier.  James Chaney, 21 year-old Black Mississippi college student, and two White New Yorkers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Andrew Goodman, age 20 and Michael Schwerner, age 24 were arrested and placed in jail for “speeding” by the local police.  The men were released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.  In RG 65 the Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files, 1957-1978 (NAID 1513558) series, there are files regarding the attempts of CORE and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register Black voters. Several of the cases in this series were opened by the FBI to investigate Ku Klux Klan and other hate organizations activity.  These records must be screened prior to public use.

After local and state authorities failed to locate the men, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy stepped in, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to take over the case.  Kennedy ordered an investigation under the Lindbergh Law [Federal Kidnapping Act (1948)] to look for the three civil rights workers.  The investigation was given the code name MIBURN or Mississippi Burning.  Ironically, this incident provided the final impetus for President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In the mist of searching for the three workers, the FBI discovered the bodies of other missing civil rights activists.  Two of the recovered bodies were of Henry Dee and Charles Moore.  Many of the DOJ’s investigations into civil rights violations are detailed in RG 60 Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files, 1936-1997  (NAID 603432) series.  The case file number for the three missing civil rights workers is 144-41-686.  These records must be screened prior to public use.

It was not until the FBI offered a $30,000 reward before an anonymous source provided details and information concerning the whereabouts of the civil rights workers.  On August 4, 1964, the three men were found near Old Jolly Farm in Neshoba County, Mississippi.  Goodman and Schwerner were both shot in the head with a single bullet, while Chaney suffered two broken arms, trauma to the groin area, a broken jaw, and a crush right shoulder.  The Press Releases, Speeches, Testimonies, and other Records, 1933-1984 (NAID 5605357) series contains the Department of Justice’s press release on August 4, 1964, announcing the discovery of the bodies of the three young men.


The FBI arrested twenty-one local police officers and Klansmen for the crime.  But, state officials refused to prosecute them for kidnapping and murder.  Instead, the Federal Government charged seven out of the twenty-one Mississippians for the crime of violating the civil rights of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.  It was not until 2005, when eighty year-old former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was indicted and convicted of manslaughter for masterminding the murder of the three civil rights workers.  He was sentenced to sixty years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  The RG 21 US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (Meridian) records are held at the National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia.  Included in this series is USA v. Cecil Ray Price, et al (1967) Case No. 5291, which details the charges against eighteen Klansmen in the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney.

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

The passage of the Civil Rights in 1964 gave African Americans hope for equality in America.  The act allowed for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to initiate lawsuits on behalf of individuals who were discriminated against on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in public accommodations.  Despite all the good intensions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans still faced discrimination in many public spaces across the country.

The Press Releases, Speeches, Testimonies, and Other Records (NAID 5605357) series consists of information released by the DOJ for public knowledge.  These records concerns the activities and accomplishments of the DOJ, as well as information on cases relating to organized crime, kidnappings, prisons, antitrust litigation, voting rights, and civil rights.  Several of the press releases following the signing of the Civil Rights Act showed how the DOJ determined whether or not to pursue a discrimination complaint or how they resolved these types of violations.

The first case filed with the DOJ under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 concerned the discrimination of African Americans in various restaurants and motels in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The complaint brought to the Northern District of Alabama Federal Court by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy showed that there was “a pattern or practice of resistance to equal treatment in public accommodations.”  The public release for July 29, 1964 detailing the violations are displayed below:

The DOJ press releases were also used to disclose information of cases involving civil rights violations, including murder.  During the summer of 1964, students from all over the country traveled to the state of Mississippi in an attempt to register African Americans to vote.  Freedom Summer was a dangerous time for these activists who tried to uplift the southern black population, while facing intimidation from resistant white Mississippians.  As a result of this activity, three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner paid the ultimate price when they disappeared on June 21, 1964.  Below is the press release from August 4, 1964 announcing the discovery of the bodies of the slain civil rights workers.

Much of the violence that occurred in the South was due to African Americans attempting to register and to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a provision for voting restrictions.  In the press release for July 24, 1964, DOJ filed suit in the Circuit Courts of two counties in Mississippi.  Holmes County and Marshall County subjected African Americans to “unreasonable questions, procedures, and treatment,” when trying to participate in state elections.

The Civil Rights Act also protected individuals whose violations did not necessarily make the national news.  The case of Lemuel A. Penn, an educator and Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve, who was killed by Klan members in Georgia, was announced on August 6, 1964.  The DOJ and FBI worked together to find justice on behalf of this American citizen with the immediate arrest of the four men who committed the murder.  This case was one of many that demonstrated that several white southerners were not willing to accept the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.



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