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Making Black History Accessible, Through the Library of Congress

Jesse J. Holland and Adam Rothman talking at the African American Passages event. (Credit: Andrew Breiner)

Jesse J. Holland joined Adam Rothman, former Kluge Center Distinguished Visiting Scholar, for “African American Passages: Black Lives in the 19th Century,” hosted by the John W. Kluge Center in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress on February 21 this year.

Holland and Rothman discussed their experiences using the Library’s collections to research black lives in early American history.

“One of the best databases on the entire planet is right here at the Library of Congress,” Holland said. “Back when I started my first book, which was called Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington D.C., I basically lived in this building,” Holland said of the Library. Holland is a race and ethnicity reporter for the Associated Press, and the author of The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House and the first novel featuring comics’ most popular black superhero: Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?

Holland used documents in the Library’s collections to piece together an African American history of the city that extended beyond life in well-known black enclaves. “I was amazed by the material you could find if you just had time to look,” he said. “When we think of a library, we think of books,” Rothman added, “but … at the Library of Congress, [we also] have this incredible manuscript collection.”

While at the Kluge Center, Rothman drew on those manuscripts to write for this blog about an unusual letter written to James K. Polk in 1844 by an enslaved blacksmith named Harry. In the letter, Harry boasted of his campaigning for Polk in the presidential election, and mentioned his 12 living children, providing a rare window into the political and family lives of enslaved people.

Rothman also created a series of podcasts telling stories of black life in the 19th century. Check out the podcasts here.

Rothman told the story of Omar Ibn Said, a West African scholar brought to the U.S. as a slave. Said left behind the only known autobiography by an enslaved person written in Arabic. Rothman also discussed Adeline Henson, a woman whose story was constructed thanks entirely to a bill of sale, two photographs, and a letter from her former owner.

“If you’re studying slavery, a lot of times what you do is you end up reading stories that other people are telling about their slaves,” Holland said. The correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington includes mentions of their slaves, Holland said, which, lets you “build a picture of what that slave was like.” He gave the example of Oney Judge, an enslaved woman owned by George Washington. Only late in her life did Judge speak to newspapers about her experiences, “but Martha Washington talked a lot about Oney Judge, George Washington talked a lot about Oney Judge.”

Holland said the first physical description of Judge comes from an ad placed by George Washington when Judge escaped while Washington was living in Philadelphia. “I had to study George Washington to figure out who Oney Judge was,” Holland said. “Unlike doing contemporaneous history, you don’t actually get to hear from the person. You take everything else that has been written about them and you try to build a picture around that person.”

Holland said one of his favorite stories has to do with a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park, in Washington, D.C. “It was one of the first statues in America that was funded by African Americans,” Holland said. The statue depicts Lincoln releasing a slave who is crouched at his feet. It was one of the first memorials to President Lincoln, and it was dedicated in 1876 with a speech by Frederick Douglass.

An actual freedman, Archer Alexander, was the model for the man being freed in the statue. Holland said the story emphasized the need to bring historical knowledge to a wider audience. When Holland asked historians about it, they said, “of course we knew who this guy was,” but no one else did. So he felt called to write the story.

Another twist to the tale involves the statue of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, also in Lincoln Park. Lincoln’s statue had initially faced west, towards the Capitol. But in 1974, when the statue of Bethune was placed to the east of the Lincoln statue, Lincoln was turned around, so that his statue faced Bethune, and away from the Capitol. That’s why “we spend these hours in archives, looking for these stories, looking for these fascinating pieces of America.”

“There’s a lot of information, a lot of this history, that only historians know,” he said. “And it doesn’t do the general population any good for only a few people to know this, and for the general population to have no way to access the information.”

One Comment

  1. Carolyn Beldin
    March 26, 2019 at 7:23 am

    I totally agree as to how amazing the Library of Congress is. To imagine actually being there to use it…a dream.. I have been researching varied African American soldiers in WWI. The films , letters, photos, you can’t find anywhere. Troops from other countries not talked about ever, people…incredible people I was never taught about…just thank you! Great article and inspiration for me!

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