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Close-up of a typed document with a few handwritten notations.
One example of a document discovered during this project is this list of “Appointments of Colored Men by President Roosevelt,” December 22, 1906, featuring African American Civil War hero Robert Smalls. Reel 70, Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Intern Spotlight: Uncovering African American Experiences in the Theodore Roosevelt Papers at the Library of Congress

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This is a guest post by Emily Alesia Poteat, who participated in the fall 2022 Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship in the Manuscript Division. Emily received a Master’s of Arts in Public History from Villanova University in September 2022.

The Library of Congress is home to an immense number of special collections containing diverse voices across history. Often waiting to be uncovered within these collections are the experiences of underrepresented groups. Through the Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA), I uncovered such voices in the Theodore Roosevelt Papers through my internship with the Manuscript Division. Primarily, my project sought to locate African American voices and experiences over the course of Roosevelt’s presidency.

Delving into a president’s collection of personal papers was an interesting prospect. From letters, to photographs, to diaries, and a host of other types of materials, an individual’s personal beliefs, ruminations, and correspondences can be examined. The Theodore Roosevelt Papers is one such collection, containing approximately 276,000 documents, which are digitized and available online. Due to the vastness of the Theodore Roosevelt Papers, however, the sample pool was narrowed strictly to the dates of Roosevelt’s presidency, 1901 to 1909. Specifically, I analyzed documents from 1905 to 1909 to locate the voices and experiences of African Americans represented in these papers.

When approaching a sample size of this magnitude, it is necessary to employ a variety of digital humanities tools to determine how best to find these underrepresented voices. Methodologically, keyword searching of transcriptions produced by volunteers from the Library of Congress’s By the People crowdsourcing transcription project proved most effective in locating these voices by allowing me to take a large sample pool and search for specific words or phrases. This process began by creating a historically significant vocabulary. To search Roosevelt’s papers effectively, I needed to consider vocabulary used in his time period, which included some now outdated terminology. For example, I could not locate African American voices and experiences by searching for the terms “African American” or “African Americans,” as this was not the terminology of Roosevelt’s day. Rather, it was when I used historical vocabulary, such as “negro,” “negroes,” and “colored” that the experiences of African American individuals could be revealed. Furthermore, I needed to be cognizant of pertinent political and historical events pertaining to the demographic groups I attempted to locate. Diving deeply into the history of the subject helped to ensure that no possible documents were missed due to an overly narrow search. Likewise, variating spelling in search terms for manuscript collections proved essential, as the writers and transcribers of manuscripts, especially personal correspondence, are prone to human error.

Through implementing this methodology, I located approximately 138 documents pertaining to African Americans and their experiences during Roosevelt’s second term as president, and these yielded interesting results. The authors of most of these documents seemed to be white upper-class men weighing in on the experiences of middle-and lower-class Americans. This begs the question of why only these voices were represented in this paper collection. The nature of the materials housed in the Theodore Roosevelt Papers may hold the answer. An essay on the collection’s provenance suggests that Roosevelt’s executive office staff may have “systematically removed routine and unimportant documents from these files.” Did the staff’s retention criteria preference communications between him and those in his personal orbit, mainly upper-class white men? While there are exceptions, such as Roosevelt’s communications with the African American educator Booker T. Washington, the voices of less affluent Americans and people of color are less in evidence. Despite this, African American experiences can be found in a number of documents.

Typed letter with prominent letterhead "The Pennsylvania Railrod Company of Philadelphia, Office of the President" in script
William Augustus Patton to William Loeb, March 3, 1908. Reel 81, Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

One such document is a letter written by William Augustus Patton to William Loeb on March 3, 1908. In this letter, Patton, the assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, writes to Loeb, Roosevelt’s presidential secretary, to affirm that protection for Charles Lee, an African American man in charge of Roosevelt’s horse, has been ensured for his journey from “Jersey City” to Washington, D.C. This document is significant, as it demonstrates protective measures made by the Roosevelt administration to guarantee the safety of its African American employees. The document raises new insights and questions that merit further investigation. For instance, what previous incident necessitated a personal letter from Roosevelt’s secretary to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company? Was this a typical response from the Roosevelt administration to acts of discrimination against their African American employees?

Despite the limitations of this collection, and the collection being primarily suited to top-down histories, the Theodore Roosevelt Papers offers a rich selection of documents enabling a deeper insight into African American history during the early Progressive Era. Moreover, through utilizing digital humanities tools, researchers can much more easily locate and analyze these experiences in a new age of digital historical research.

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