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

African-American art has been a vital part of the American experience from the time of slavery in America to the present. Black artists and their artwork have been documented in textual records, still pictures and moving images at the National Archives.


Sargent Johnson, painting (National Archives Identifier 559180)

Sargent Johnson, painting (National Archives Identifier 559180)


The Harmon Film Collection at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland includes footage on some of the great African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Artists such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Laura Wheeler Waring, Sargent Johnson, and Palmer Hayden were highlighted in several films sponsored by the William E. Harmon Foundation. The Series Motion Picture Films on Community and Family Life, Education, Religious Beliefs, and the Art and Culture of Minority and Ethnic Groups, ca. 1930 to ca. 1953 (National Archives Identifier 94791) contains nearly 300 items relating to African-American life and culture in the United States and abroad. The films were funded by the Harmon Foundation to showcase the talents of black artists, primarily those during the Harlem Renaissance.


“A Study of the Negro Artists, 1937?” (National Archives Identifier 94957) is a great source for learning more about African-American artists during the early 20th century. This silent film illustrates African-American artists and their art collections. Featured in the film are Lois Mailou Jones, Augusta Savage, James A. Porter, and several other black artists working or instructing others. This film also shows the important of art in African-American culture, which was sometimes used for communication as well as a venue to past down the African-American history and experience. The skills of the selected artists in the film were used in college classrooms across the country.

Today’s blog is written by Vera J. Williams, IT Specialist in the BP Project Assistance Division at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

On January 15, 2014, the 85th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a family member, Clayton Adams and I walked in the path of our Great-Great-Great Grandfather Solomon Northup – the object of the award winning movie based on the slave narrative “Twelve Years a Slave”. This book is the true story written by our 3xGreat Grandfather, a free black man from Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and was eventually rescued twelve years later.


Solomon Northrup

First, Clayton and I visited the corner of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue on the northwest side of Federal Triangle in Washington, DC. This location is the former site of the Shekell’s Tavern, where Solomon was drugged by his “business associates” Merrill Brown (real name Alexander Merrill) and Abram Hamilton (real name Joseph Russell), while he ate dinner. Solomon had originally met these men in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was encouraged to come to DC for his musical capabilities.

Next, we traveled to 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, the previous site of John Gadsby’s Hotel where Solomon Northup stayed while visiting “Washington City.” Gadsby’s Hotel (also known as the National Hotel) was where he was taken after becoming sick from the drugs that Brown and Hamilton had given him at dinner. Today, this is the location of the Newseum, an interactive museum for news and journalism.

We continued on to the corner of Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW, the previous site of Williams’ Slave Pen. This is where Solomon Northup awoke in chains shackled to the floor, after being drugged and kidnapped, and before being sold into slavery. Here he was viciously beaten as he professed he was a free man and that a mistake had been made, until he no longer protested. Today this is the location of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

From Williams’ Slave Pen, Northrup’s name was changed to Plat Hamilton to hid is true identity, he was then placed in a wagon with other slaves, transported to Richmond, Virginia and put on the Brig Orleans headed for Louisiana. The National Archives at Ft. Worth holds the ship’s manifest (seen below) that imposed a new identity on Solomon Northrup in RG 36 Records of the U.S. Customs Service.

Manifest of Slaves to be Transported on the Brig Orleans

Manifest of Slaves to be Transported on the Brig Orleans

Clayton and I concluded our walk by visiting the US Capitol, which Solomon could see out of his window while being held at the Williams’ Slave Pen.

The locations mentioned in this blog are very familiar to me. Previously, I visited the US Capitol, had taken the Metro train at Federal Triangle, and I worked at the FAA as a contractor for a few years. However, this time, visiting these locations, I knew the back story and felt heavy hearted thinking of the pain Solomon must have experienced at these locations.

A book recently published by David Fiske, Dr. Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman - Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, details the information I described as we walked in the path of our 3xGreat Grandfather. The forward of this book was written by Clayton’s mother, Carol Linzy Adams-Sally. Solomon’s story was experienced by many freed blacks, however they were never set free and their story may not have been documented. Their numbers are not known, as human trafficking throughout America and Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, was big business for it contributed extensively to the creation of the abundant infrastructure of our US economy.

I am delighted the movie “12 Years a Slave” was made by Fox Searchlight. It has received multiple awards and nominations, and has introduced numerous Americans to Solomon Northup and the plight of human trafficking in America. I am extremely proud of my ancestor; he had the “American Dream” in 1841. Unfortunately, it was taken from him, yet he survived slavery, achieved his freedom, returned home to his family and wrote a book documenting the experience.

Ms. Williams will have a discussion about Solomon Northrup as part of the Afro-American History Society’s Black History Month Programs on February 25, 2014 at 10:45 am. Please see the flyer below. If you have any questions, please contact Lisha Penn, President of the Afro-American History Society at (301) 837 2043.


The Pole at Last

by on January 28, 2014

 Today’s blog is written by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

In addition to permanent government records, the National Archives also holds many documents and artifacts relating to polar exploration. These records were donated by many explorers and scholars to the Center for Polar Archives at NARA until the late 1970s. One of the most extensive and famous collections belongs to Robert Peary, famous for leading the first Arctic expedition to reach the North Pole.

Many documents and photographs in the Peary Collection (Collection Identifier XP) deal with Matthew Henson, the first African American polar explorer, who had a close 20 year relationship with Peary and accompanied him as navigator, driver, craftsmen, and translator on many expeditions.

Matthew Henson (center) and 4 Inuits after reaching the North Pole, 4/7/1909

Matthew Henson (center) and 4 Inuits after reaching the North Pole, 4/7/1909

Although Henson contributed greatly to the Peary party reaching the North Pole in 1909 (and by his own account was the first to walk to the spot of the North Pole), he was not among those who received wide ranging recognition once the crew made it home. The explorer was honored with a dinner ceremony by the Colored Citizens of New York in 1909, but acknowledgement of Henson’s achievements were non-existent outside of the African American community. Nearly 30 years later, Matthew Henson received an invitation to join the prestigious Explorers Club; and in 1945 was awarded a US Navy medal for his role in the Arctic explorations.

The same discrimination and prejudice that delayed recognition and celebration of his achievements was also a cause for frustration and anger while racing to the North Pole.

ReDiscovery number: 19201Digital File name: 19201_2009_001Page 1 of 2

Letter from Matthew Henson to Robert Peary, 9/5/1906

Letter from Matthew Henson to Robert Peary, 9/5/1906


This letter (from Papers Relating to Arctic Expeditions, 1886-1909, National Archives Identifier 304961) was written during the 1905-06 expedition to Greenland aboard the USS Roosevelt. In the letter Henson airs his frustrations with members of the crew spreading false rumors, talking behind his back, mistreating him, and generally being jealous of his ability. Alluding to their long relationship Henson tells Peary near the end: “You have been knowing me for nineteen years and I have never carried you any tailes [sic] and it is to [sic] late to begin now.” Matt Henson’s continued participation in future polar expeditions suggest he and Robert Peary’s relationship did not suffer as a result of the scheming of the crew. By many accounts, Robert Peary greatly respected and recognized the abilities of Matt Henson, declaring that he would not have made it to the North Pole without him.

Today’s blog was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.


America celebrates another year of remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and legacy. Many of us remember him as a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. By using the philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolence activism in India, King was able to make advancements in civil rights for African-Americans through nonviolent civil disobedience.

542015 king

Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King came to stardom when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. In 1957, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its first president. Through SCLC, King led many struggles for civil rights throughout the South. King gained even more national attention when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Through his devotion to nonviolence and racial equality, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (National Archives Identifier 299891).

In the spring of 1965, King and the SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights. The first march took place on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers were attacked by state police with beatings and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of those 600 marchers was Representative John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was beaten severely during the attack. The events of “Bloody Sunday” resulted in a class action suit against Governor George Wallace and the State of Alabama brought up by Lewis, Hosea Williams, and Amelia Boynton. All three testified at the hearing and described the horrific events that took place at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dr. King also testified at the hearing. On page 29 of the testimony, King answered questions on how they planned the march from Selma. In one answer he stated, “Well, we started having mass meetings; we felt that we had to do something to arouse people all over the community…” After an objection from one of the lawyers, King continued to describe how they held mass and ward meetings in Dallas County.


In the end, the court approved a plan and guarded the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. On March 21, 1965, around 8,000 people began the march from Selma arriving at the State Capitol in Montgomery on March 25th. The publicity of the lawsuit and the second march inspired Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (National Archives Identifier 299909).


The file of Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Amelia Boynton v. Governor George Wallace (National Archives Identifier 643802) is part of the series Civil Cases, 09/1938 – 11/26/1968 (RG 21 Records of District Courts of the United States), at the National Archives of Atlanta in Morrow, GA. The Southeast Region Archives holds many U.S. District Court files pertaining to civil rights cases from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina. For more information, please visit the National Archives at Atlanta website The National Archives at Atlanta.

In the final years of his life, King focused on poverty, the Vietnam War, as well as the rights of African American workers. He was planning the Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated in April 1968. His legacy continues to be inspirational in the United States and around the world. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor him; it was first observed on January 20, 1986 and continues to be observed on the third Monday of January every year.



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


At the National Archives there are several collections affiliated with the federal government that has records relating to the African and African American experience. One such collection is the Harmon Foundation Collection that contains photographs of paintings, sculptures and portraits from black artists, including Palmer Hayden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White and Selma Burke.

The Harmon Foundation was established in 1922 by William E. Harmon to support and to give acknowledgement to black artists in the United States and abroad. The foundation provided exhibits, scholarships and awards for black artists to showcase their work in a public space. After the foundation terminated in 1967, the board donated its entire collection to the National Archives.


The series Artworks by Negro Artists, 1922-1967 (National Archives Identifier 558790) consists of images depicting the African and African American experience. Most of the artwork in this series was exhibited during the 1920s and 1930s in various venues across the country. Many of these images can be found through the Online Public Access (OPA) system.


Sargent Johnson (1888-1967) was an African American artist from California who was known for his abstract figurative and early modern styles. He was a painter, sculptor and potter who used ceramic, clay, wood and watercolor in his artwork.



Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was an African American sculptor and teacher from Florida. She began making clay sculptures of animals as a child and continued her craft while living in New York City during the 1920s. Savage was an activist for African American artists and fought for equal rights within national and international art circuits.


Ronald Moody (1900-1984) was a Jamaican born sculptor, who specialized in wood carvings. Moody taught himself how to sculpt while studying in Europe. Many of his sculptures were sent to the Harmon Foundation to be used in exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art.




James A. Porter (1905-1970) was an artist and art historian. His artistic and academic work provided the foundation for the critical evaluation of African American art. Porter taught art history at Howard University and published Modern Negro Art in 1943, which was one of the first studies on African American art history.




Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian (1937-2003) was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was a painter and art teacher. Boghossian was the first contemporary African artist to have his work purchased by the Musee d’Art Modeme in Paris in 1963 and he taught at Howard University from 1972 to 2001.



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