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Wanted: Colored Inventors

by on November 5, 2013

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


Most of what we know about African American inventors came from the research of Henry E. Baker. Born on September 1, 1857, in Columbia, Mississippi, Baker made it his mission to identify and publicly highlight the contributions of black inventors. RG 241 Records Relating to Colored Inventors (National Archives Identifier 7451732) contains letters, handwritten lists of inventors, and pamphlets regarding Baker’s attempt to collect information about black inventors.

Flyer for Colored Inventors

Flyer for Colored Inventors


Baker attended the Naval Academy where he was subjected to racial insults and physical violence at the hands of southern white students and staff. He withdrew prior to graduating because of the treatment at the school. Baker took a position at the US Patent Office in Washington, D. C. in 1877, as a copyist and continued to work his way up the ranks. In 1902, Baker was appointed as Second Assistant Patent Examiner. While at the US Patent Office, he noticed that there was a lack of knowledge and awareness about black inventors among his colleagues and the general public.


Baker collected the names of African American inventors, along with their patent numbers. He sent letters to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and black leaders asking them to list any African American inventors they knew. The lists were complied to help create Baker’s book The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years (1913).


The list of African American inventors allowed Baker to provide information that was used to select inventors who were showcased at national and international exhibitions. Several African American inventors participated in the Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Inventors, as well as artists, educators, and religious leaders displayed drawings, photographs, and artifacts that portrayed positive images of African American life to the world.


Many of the identified black inventors also demonstrated their inventions at the Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition of 1913, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Michael Arzate is the Summer Diversity Intern in the Research Services Division, Textual Records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. He is currently a History undergraduate major at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington is being celebrated, I’ve come to reflect on major legislation that soon will be celebrating their 50th as well, many of which came from Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 . My attention today is focused on how the  Higher Education Act forever changed higher education for African Americans. While government support for higher education for African Americans did not stem from the Act, it did create a standard for which future presidential administrations and Congress would provide financial support.

(The Higher Education Act of 1965. National Archives Identifier: 299923)

The primary vehicle for which higher education for Black Americans is advocated and supported is through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). While HBCUs existed well before Johnson’s Higher Education Act (many were established after the Civil War), the Act created a federal definition for which HBCUs were to be accounted for and provided direct federal funding for these schools, support which is still relied on until this day.

Of the 104 HBCU institutions today, about 90% still receive some type of federal aid (Howard University, for example, received $234 million in federal appropriations to cover an $851 budget operating budget for the 2012 fiscal year). With the rising cost of quality education and the pressure to keep tuition and other student expenses low so that the education can become more accessible to low-income students, HBCUs have found themselves reliant on state and federal help in order to survive and provide educational opportunities for African Americans.

At the National Archives we have a plethora of documents including speeches, photographs, and audio recordings regarding federal support for HBCUs, dating back from Herbert Hoover’s visit to Howard University (National Archives Identifier: 6337952) to Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order* to significantly increase the participation of HBCUs in federally funded programs (National Archives Identifier: 4556129).

Included amongst the records regarding HBCUs is an especially inspiring speech given in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the dedication of a new set of buildings funded by Congress at Howard University, located in Washington D. C. The speech set the tone for the government’s mission to support those same people that it had willfully discriminated against for hundreds of years before. The New Deal author was met with applause as he declared,  “[Howard University] typifies America’s faith in the ability of man to respond to opportunity regardless of race, or creed, or color.” President Roosevelt characterized his domestic agenda when he said, “These [newly dedicated] structures…represent the happy conjuncture of two important federal programs to meet the difficulties of the depression. As far as it is humanly possible, the federal government has followed the policy that among American citizens there should be no forgotten men or race. It is a wise and truly American policy and we shall continue to faithfully observe it.”

(Transcript for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address at Howard University, given on 10/26/1936. National Archives Identifier: 197359)

Since higher education is one of the most common medium for upward social mobility, federal programs initiated in order to help African Americans receive an education gained strict attention during the progressive social movement of the 1960s . In order to assimilate a once-repressed group into a highly skilled and educated working and middle class, expanding educational opportunities for these groups became necessary. With the increased priority in the federal government to fund higher education for African Americans and other minorities, those who experienced poverty were finally given the opportunity to escape through affirmative action policies and new federal funds that were being pumped into schools specifically designed for these people.

*Researchers should note that with this file, records must be screened for personal privacy and law enforcement information under 5 U.S.C. 552(b) prior to public release. Some documents remain classified in whole or in part. Access to some case file subjects requires a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI.

Today’s blog is written by Dr. Christina Violeta Jones, Textual Reference Archivist, who specializes in DOJ, FBI, and other law enforcement federal agencies records

Less than one month after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, four young girls, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins, were killed when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama (National Archives Identifier: 5629353)

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been a rallying post for civil rights activities throughout the 1960s. For instance, it was at the church where students were arrested during a training section for the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Children’s Crusade. The three-story building was also a space for prominent civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth to congregate and make plans for the movement. The active civil rights activity in the church marked it as a target for bombings and other acts of violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.

Key meeting place during civil rights movement and site of 1963 bombing

Key meeting place during civil rights movement and site of 1963 bombing (National Archives Identifier: 5629357)

RG 48 Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior (National Archives Identifier: 2679097) has a collection of the photographs displaying the designation ceremony of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as a national historic landmark on February 19, 2006. These photographs contain images of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church’s Reverend Arthur Price, Jr., US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton who attended the ceremony.


U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, far left, with Secretary Gale Norton and Arthur Price, Jr., Pastor of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, at ceremonies designating the Church, key civil rights movement meeting place and site of 1963 bombing, as National Historic Landmark, 02/19/2006 (ARC ID: 5629491)

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, far left, with Secretary Gale Norton and Arthur Price, Jr., Pastor of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama (National Archives Identifier: 5629491)

As noted in the September 10, 2013 blog post “Re-Introducing RG 60 Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files” by Archivist Tina Ligon, the DOJ Litigation case files were created by the various divisions of the Justice Department to investigate possible violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The DOJ’s investigation into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing (case file # 144-1-906) is housed at the National Archives at College Park.

 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, key meeting place during civil rights movement and site of 1963 bombing, designated as National Historic Landmark, 02/21/2006 (ARC ID: 5629789)

 (National Archives Identifier: 5629789)

Researchers will have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request because these files have to be screened for FOIA (b)(6) Personal Information and FOIA (b)(7) Law Enforcement prior to use by researchers. For more information on filing a FOIA request please visit here.

*To inquire about records related to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing or any other records pertaining to the Civil Rights Period, contact the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, Textual Reference Division. You may call, write, or email them at the following address below:

National Archives at College Park

Textual Reference Division

8601 Adelphi Road

College Park, MD 20740

Tel: 301-837-3510, Fax: 301-837-1752


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

In April 2013, the processing for Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files (National Archives Identifier 603432) series [RG 60 General Records of the Department of Justice] began. Litigation case files were created or accumulated by the various divisions of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) to investigate possible violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case files in this series include suits to implement court-ordered school desegregation, complaints of racial discrimination on interstate common carriers, prisons conditions, and allegations of brutality by local police against African Americans and members of other ethnic minorities. The litigation case files contain correspondence, memorandums, investigative reports, legal briefs, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings as applicable to each case.

The team responsible for processing these case files included myself, two full-time employees (Mark and Scott), 6 student employees (Anwar, Micah, Brittany, Abiola, Michael, and Shavon), and a summer intern (Michael). The team organized case files into numerical order, placed case files into archival boxes, and typed a list of nearly 68,000 case file folder titles. Their hard work on this project is truly appreciated.

Processing the case files and capturing the case file numbers were completed in August 2013. As result of our efforts, an additional 2,471 standard legal boxes (1,081 linear feet) were added to the series.

Within the case files, we discovered several DOJ investigations relating to key events in African American history. Many of the case files relate to the modern Civil Rights Movement. Select case files include:

  • Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) [case file # 144-012-23]
  • Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama (1961)[case file # 144-1-554]
  • Birmingham Church Bombing (1963) [case file # 144-1-906]
  • Murder of Viola Liuzzo (1965) [case file # 144-2-470]
  • March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) [case file # 144-16-574]
  • Murder of Harry T. Moore (1951) [case file # 144-18-205]
  • Murder of Emmett Till (1955) [case file #144-40-116]
  • James H. Meredith and the University of Mississippi (1961) [case file # 144-40-254]
  • Murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (1964) [case file 144-41-686]
  • Assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968) [case file #144-72-662]
  • Integration of Little Rock High School (1957) [case file #144-100-9-1]

This series also contains several case files relating to the Black Power Movement and Black Nationalist organizations. Select case files include:

  • Murder of “Lil” Bobby Hutton (1968) [case file # 144-11-562]
  • Watts Riot (1965) [case file # 144-12-1102]
  • Washington, D. C. Riot (1968) [case file #144-16-986]
  • Murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (1969) [case file # 144-23-971]
  • Detroit Riot (1967) [case file # 144-37-509]
  • James H. Meredith and the March Against Fear (1966) [case file # 144-40-570]
  • Wilmington Ten (1971) [case file # 144-54-407]
  • The Glenville Shootout (1968) [case file # 144-57-311]

Other related case files of interest, include:

  • Abduction of Mack Charles Parker (1959) [case file # 144-41-304]
  • Prison conditions at Angola [Louisiana State Penitentiary] (case file # 144-32M-10]
  • Jackson State University killings (1970) [case file # 144-41-1597]
  • Murder of two students on the campus of Southern University (1972) [case file # 144-32M-9]
  • Prison conditions at Parchman Farm [Mississippi State Penitentiary] [case file #144-40-879]


*The case files in this series have to be screened for FOIA (b)(6) Personal Information and FOIA (b)(7) Law Enforcement prior to use by researchers. For more information on filing a FOIA request please visit here.

Today’s blog is written by Damani Davis, Reference Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.

When commencing research at the National Archives, genealogists typically begin with census, immigration, and military records.  In terms of federal records, these are the three that most commonly hold personal information on the ancestors of most Americans.  This is based on the simple fact that a large portion of our ancestral population either immigrated, served in the military, or was at least counted in the census.

Of course, there are some exceptions to this broad generalization.  A researcher of Native American ancestors, for instance, will generally have difficulty finding anything relevant in immigration records.  Similarly, the general assumption among many is that immigration records are completely irrelevant to African-American research and have no direct relation to unique history of that particular group.  For the most part, this view is generally accurate—but to adhere to it too rigidly can cause some African-American genealogists to disregard potential sources of information.  Many citizens currently categorized as “Black” or “African American” have ancestors who were among tens of thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean region during the late 1800s through the early 1930s.  These waves of Caribbean immigrants settled primarily northeastern port cities—especially New York City; the exception were Bahamians who primarily settled in south Florida. Some of these immigrants held on to their particular national or ethnic identities while a significant number intermarried with the native black populations of the areas in which they settled.  Either way, most of the descendants of this early wave of Caribbean immigrants are currently categorized as “Black/African-American.”

Passenger Arrival List

Passenger Arrival List

An example of this ancestry is typified by Trinidad native, Cyril Crichlow, who is documented in immigration, naturalization, passport, census, and military records held at the National Archives. These records show that Crichlow was born in Trinidad in 1889, immigrated to the United States in 1905, and became a naturalized citizen 1919.  His 1920 passport application shows that he had resided in College View, Nebraska, Chicago, and New York City. The 1930, census shows that he was living in Washington, DC, was married to a native of New Jersey, and had a 17 year old son who had been born in Mississippi.


In the summer of 2012, I gave a lecture on “How to Locate Immigrant Ancestors from the British West Indies” at the annual Juneteenth Black Genealogy conference sponsored by the Prince George’s County chapter of the Afro-American History & Genealogy Summit.  In my Power Point presentation, I featured Cyril Crichlow’s records along with those of other early immigrants.  Coincidentally and unexpectedly, one of the attendees in the audience recognized Cyril Crichlow as one of her ancestors.  Linda Crichlow, an educator in the Montgomery County public schools system was able to use the federal records that I had found to supplement the local and family records that she had already uncovered through her own research.  Our fortuitous encounter, however, highlighted to us both the need to inform Black/African-American genealogists on this history of immigration and the possibility that these federal records may be relevant to their own family research.

There is an upcoming article in Prologue by Damani Davis that will address this topic in greater detail.



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