Today’s blog is written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
When Marian Anderson, the renowned African-American contralto singer, performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 75 years ago, she had no idea that her performance would become a pivotal moment in civil rights history.
Marian Anderson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 27, 1897, Anderson had established her career as a contralto singer, performing throughout the United States and Europe. By 1939, she was well-known by American and European music lovers for her performances and style of singing. Her journey to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began in January of 1939 when Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution to use their musical hall for a concert performed by Anderson on Easter Sunday. DAR had denied their request because of their all-white performer policy. This sent outrage throughout the African-American community and as this refusal gained national attention, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt decided to step in. In February, the First Lady sent a letter to DAR’s president declaring her resignation from the organization.
The Easter Concert at the Lincoln Memorial was initiated by Mrs. Roosevelt and others. Secretary of the Department of Interior, Harold Ickes got the approval from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and on March 30, 1939, he announced the event. On April 9, 1939, 75,000 people of all races gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to attend the concert and hundreds more listened on the radio.
Marian Anderson was introduced by Secretary Ickes; her opening song was America. She also sang Ave Maria, and other spiritual songs. She closed the concert with Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. (NAID 1729137)
After the concert, letters from the public were sent to Secretary Ickes expressing their gratitude and amazement of the concert. These letters can be found in the Central Classified Files, 1907–1953 (NAID 593948), under the subject heading “Racial Discrimination – Marian Anderson, 1939–1943” (NAID 594881).
In the end, Marian Anderson became an important figure in the fight for equality among African-American artists, and her concert brought the nation’s attention to its segregation barriers. At the time of her concert on Easter Sunday 75 years ago, the Federal Government was still segregated and this concert proved that all races can come together as one nation. A mural of the concert was dedicated at the Department of Interior in 1943.
Here is a link to a short clip of the concert from the National Film Preservation Foundation, which was acquired from the UCLA Film and Archives. Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939).
Today’s blog is introduced and compiled by Dr. Tina Ligon, with the assistance of fellow archivists, specialists, and technicians at the National Archives.
May 17, 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision regarding education in America. The Oliver L. Brown et. al. v. Board of Education of Topeka (KS) ruling declared public schools that were separated by race as unconstitutional. The unanimous decision stated that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling meant that African-American children had a right to attend schools that were properly equipped with well-trained teachers and staff. This decision was celebrated by many who believed that black children received an inadequate education in the racially segregated schools and was condemned by those who wanted to keep the races separated.
The Brown v. Board of Education case was made up of five similar lawsuits from around the country. The first case was Briggs v. Elliot (1949), which challenged segregated schools in Summerton, South Carolina. The three judge panel granted an injunction to make the inferior black schools equal to the white schools. The Boiling v. Sharpe (1950) case dealt with segregated schools in Washington, D. C. It held that segregated schools in the nation’s capital violated the due process of the law under the Fifth Amendment. Initiated by student protests, the Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (1951) challenged the ill-equipped black schools in Virginia. Similar to the Briggs v. Elliot case, the Virginia courts ruled that the facilities at the segregated black schools should be equalized to the white schools. The last case, which carries the landmark name, was the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1951). Black parents argued against the poor conditions and the locations of the segregated black schools. The local courts maintained that black and white schools in the state were equal on the basis of buildings, transportation, and curriculums. Finally, the state of Delaware was ordered by the ruling in Gebhart v. Belton (1952) to admit black students into the white only schools. All five of these cases were grouped together and argued before the US Supreme Court in 1954. The court’s decision mandated desegregation of public schools across the country.
The National Archives holds many records relating to the Brown v. Board of Education case and the other four cases that made up this historic lawsuit. Related records ranged from court documents, photographs, online study-guides, and information papers. This blog is an overview of the types of federally created records relating to the Brown v. Board decision. To learn more about additional records, visit the Online Public Access catalog.
In 2004, Walter B. Hill, Jr. and Trichita M. Chestnut complied Research Information Paper (RIP) 112 Federal Records Pertaining to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). The records described in this RIP are from the executive and judicial branches of the Federal Government. It identifies most of the records held at the National Archives that relate to the Brown v. Board decision.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library located in Abilene, Kansas holds many of the records made in the District Court condemning the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas as well as the segregated school system as a whole. The Civil Rights collection relating to this case has letters, memoranda, and court orders from southern governors and friends of Eisenhower expressing their concern over integrated schools. Several of these documents are available online through the Eisenhower Presidential Library website.
The main NARA website has a section dedicated to teaching the Brown v. Board of Education case. This teacher’s resource gives background information on the case, as well as documents related to the lawsuit, which includes the dissenting opinion of Judge Waites Waring in the Briggs v. Elliott case (NAID 279306), a letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to E. E. “Swede” Hazlett (NAID 186601), and the judgment of the case (NAID 301669). The Teaching with Documents pages also provides users with a timeline, teaching activities, and biographies of key figures.
by Ligon on April 22, 2014
Today’s Blog is written by Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist.
A significant percentage of African Americans lived in rural communities until the middle of the 20th century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 1900, the black population was slightly more than 8.8 million or 11.6% of the U.S. population. Of that figure nearly 90% lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms. By 1940, the African-American population had grown to over 12 million (this figure reflects an undercounting of the black population in the 1940 census). Even after the massive exodus of people during the first wave of the Great Migration, roughly 77% of African Americans in 1940 still lived in rural areas in the South. Researchers interested in images of African Americans will, for that reason, find that the farming and related subject matter photographic files of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its components in the National Archives are key sources for documentation.
This blog looks at a group of photographs of African Americans living in the rural community of Harmony in Putnam County, Georgia on the eve of World War II. The images taken by Irving Rusinow (1914–1990) from late May to early June 1941, are a part of the series in RG 83 Photographic Prints Documenting Programs and Activities of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Predecessor Agencies, ca. 1922 – ca. 1947 (NAID 521048). The pictures relate to a “Community Stability and Instability” sociological study of rural life and social institutions in six communities across the United States that was conducted by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics’ Division of Farm Population and Rural Welfare.
Putnam County is part of the Black Belt, a region in the South that was once characterized by a large African-American population and a plantation system of agriculture—primarily cotton. At the time of the study and photographs, the county (population 8,514) was considered almost 100% rural, having only about a couple hundred people living in the county’s only town—the county seat Eatonton. Harmony was even smaller with about 70 families (20 white and 50 black). The locality was selected for the study primarily because it presented a “strong bi-racial element”—one black and one white. However, as the foreword to the report explained, Harmony was really “two communities, having little in common except the understanding that keeps them apart and their economic interdependence.” It was also a place where the white community maintained power and control, and tolerated those blacks that accepted their positions. While Harmony had its share of impoverished whites, African Americans existed on the bottom rung both economically and socially.
Waller Wynne (1906–1996), a social scientist with the Division of Farm Population and Rural Welfare conducted the Harmony study and wrote a 1943 report, Culture of Contemporary Rural Community: Harmony, Georgia, describing his findings, some of which are referenced in this blog. Wynne examined the economy and the responses of the community, social institutions, and residents to changes brought on by the demise of the plantation system and the end of large-scale cotton cultivation following the 1920s boll-weevil infestation. Wynne’s report is available in the Archives Library Information Center at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
The images featured in this blog can be in RG 83 Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), located at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
by Ligon on April 8, 2014
Today’s blog is written by Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Deputy Director Production Division of Data Processing at the National Declassification Center (NWD) at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
“…the black men who were killed at Fort Pillow…and elsewhere, fighting as gallantly and as bravely as any men under the flag, be their complexion what it will, should be recognized by the Government…” (Congressional Globe, 38 Cong., 1 sess., June 24, 1864)
April 12, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, which took place in Lauderdale County, Tennessee during the American Civil War. Today, this battle is also well known as the Fort Pillow Massacre due to the number of United States Colored Troops (USCT) who were killed when they attempted to surrender to the Confederate Army. There were conflicting reports on what actually happened that day, which prompted Congress to investigate the massacre through the Joint Committee on the Conduct and Expenditures of the War. The same report was submitted to the Senate and House of Representatives, Report No. 63 and Report No. 65, respectively in May 1864.
During the investigation, many of the surviving black soldiers who witnessed the cruelty and murders testified to the Joint Committee a week after the massacre occurred. Their testimonies were found in the reports. Union sources asserted that although their troops surrendered, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops still executed them in cold blood, specifically the black troops, shouting out “No quarter! No quarter! Kill the d- n-; shoot them down.” The black soldiers who survived testified that most of the men surrendered and threw down their weapons, only to be shot or beaten by the Confederate soldiers. Private Daniel Tyler (Company B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) maintained that he “was wounded after we all surrendered; not before…They shot me when we came up the hill from down by the river.” Private John Haskins (Co, B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) asserted that “After we had surrendered they shot me in the left arm…” and Sergeant Henry F. Weaver (Co. C of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) stated that “The rebels charged after the flag of truce, the TN cavalry broke and was followed down the hill by the colored soldiers…They were shooting the negroes over my head…I saw one of the rebels and told him I would surrender, he said ‘We do not shoot white men,’…he ordered me away; [and] kept shooting the negroes…”
Although the killings ceased at night fall, the next morning it was renewed, when Confederate soldiers sought and sometimes killed the wounded among the dead. Private Duncan Harding (Company A of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) swore that “The next morning I saw them shoot down one corporal in our company…they shot him dead.” When asked if the corporal had any arms in his hands, Private Harding responded, “No sir; nothing.” Private Manuel Nichols (Company B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) testified to being injured again after the surrender. He stated that “…the morning after the fight they shot me again in the right arm. When they came up and killed the wounded ones, I saw some four or five coming down the hill” and Private Aaron Fentis (Company D of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) attested that he “saw two wounded men shot the next morning; they were lying down when the seeesh [or secessionists: a person withdrawing from the union, which was a derogatory term for Confederates and Southerners] shot them.” Confederate sources claimed that after the Rebels attacked the Fort, there was neither cruel purpose nor cruel negligence on the part of General Forrest, who was “utterly devoid of wrong doing.” It was reported that when the Confederates evacuated Fort Pillow that evening they gained little from the attack except to temporary disrupt Union operations.
In the end, causalities were high, especially for Union troops. It was reported that more than 300 black soldiers were killed in the Fort Pillow Massacre. Controversy surrounding this battle continues today, with some scholars arguing that Confederate troops massacred the Union troops after they surrendered and other scholars dispute the claims made during the congressional investigation. The Fort Pillow Massacre became a Union rallying cry and cemented resolve to see the war through to its conclusion.
For more information on the Fort Pillow Massacre: Senate Report 63, 38 Congress, 1 sess., Serial 1178; House of Representatives Report 65, 38 Congress, 1 sess., Serial 1278; and Letters Received from Executive Officers, compiled 1831-1869; General Records of the Department of Treasury, Record Group 56 National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland.
by Ligon on March 25, 2014
Today’s blog is written by Dr. Jametta Davis, Appraisal Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
The Great Depression was one of the most devastating economic periods of the twentieth century. Between 1929 and the early 1940s, countless American citizens experienced high unemployment rates, increased poverty, and great uncertainty. For black girls and young women, the period created even greater challenges due to the fact that prior to 1929, they were typically employed in the lowest paying jobs within the labor market. Also discrimination, marginal education, and growing competition for their already meager wages made circumstances even more difficult for black women during the Depression. Recognizing these unique challenges, prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, and the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration provided thousands of black girls and women with educational programs and vocational training to prepare them for better job opportunities.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1943)
The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a New Deal program created in 1935 within the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The mission of the program was to provide economic relief to young people aged 16 to 24 through educational aid, job training skills, and employment opportunities. In 1936, in an effort to better address the needs of black youth, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Mary McLeod Bethune as Director of the NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs. With this appointment, the prominent civil rights leader became the first black female administrator in the federal government. In this capacity, Bethune worked closely with federal and state agencies, black college presidents, and black businesses and organizations to establish numerous resources to aid black girls and women through the auspices of the NYA.
Bethune at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D. C.
For instance, the NYA’s Special Negro Fund provided educational aid and work-study programs to black college students. Such programs allowed young women to remain in college, acquire additional job skills, and participate in wage-earning projects that provided them with opportunities to instruct and assist other NYA participants in the various vocational programs. For Bethune, it was just as important to assist students who could not afford to attend college. Therefore, the NYA also collaborated with local schools, hospitals, and organizations, such as the YWCA to provide girls with training in nursery school work, home economics, gardening, cafeteria work, nursing, clerical skills, and factory jobs. A number of residential training centers on and near the campuses of black colleges in thirteen states were also created. Selected girls, usually from rural areas, traveled to the centers where they resided for extended periods to learn new trades and skills.
Female participants in each of the agency’s programs earned wages for their part-time work on projects. In fact, unlike most New Deal work programs, the NYA paid black and white students equal wages for the projects they participated in. However, participants were not the only ones to benefit. Through their work, they also contributed much needed resources for the communities in which they worked. Resources provided to the community included: meals and services, improvements to the various facilities in the black community, including recreational and educational amenities for youth, assistance for Tuberculosis patients, and resources to charitable institutions that provided for the black community’s most needy.
As World War II began and the need for defense goods and materials grew, young women in the NYA program were increasingly trained for industry work related to the war efforts. As a result, black NYA participants were readily prepared in cities throughout the country to work in programs which emphasized industrial sewing, welding, machinery, pattern-making, and to a smaller degree, clerical work. Because the war had also stimulated the economy and the general labor market, the NYA industrial training programs had also prepared numerous black girls and women for jobs in the defense industry.
The improved economy eliminated the need for the NYA’s existence and, as a result, its programs were discontinued by 1944. Despite this fact, Mary McLeod Bethune and the Division of Negro Affairs made incredible strides for the black youth who participated in the NYA’s educational and vocational training projects. The work of the agency marked the first time in the history of the federal government that black youth and young adults were assisted through such programming efforts. In the end, the agency had assisted close to 300,000 black youth and as such, paved the way for thousands of young black women to participate in better opportunities within the job market.
The images used in this blog can be found in RG 119 Records of the National Youth Administration (NYA), located at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.