CCDI Advisory Board Member Spotlight: Dr. Gabrielle Foreman

The Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board advises CCDI staff on program administration, supports initiative outreach activities, and helps the Library imagine ways that it can deepen connections with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Its members include nine professionals ranging from senior scholars to leading librarians, archivists, and early-career professionals in Libraries, Archives, and Museums. You can learn more about our Advisory Board here.

In this interview post, Dr. Gabrielle Foreman, a CCDI Advisory Board member, shares insights into the principles that drive the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), offers perspectives on collective organizing and engaging people in public history, and her previous experiences in working with the Library.

Dr. Foreman was a recent recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship for her work in revealing and elevating “early traditions of African American activism” as a literary historian and digital humanist. She also recently participated in a panel discussion with other Advisory Board members during CCDI’s Summer Fuse event this past July.

CCDI is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded Of the People: Widening the Path initiative. This four-year program provides grants to individuals, organizations and institutions to create projects using the Library’s digital collections and that center one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Learn more about CCDI here.

You’re a member of our first Advisory Board for CCDI. What made you want to get involved in this effort?

A photo of Dr. Gabrielle Foreman, a member of the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board.

Dr. Gabrielle Foreman is a member of the CCDI Advisory Board. [Photo Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation]

For me, working with librarians and archivists is like going to a family reunion with all of the first cousins I grew up with. The questions, concerns, drivers, and commitments we share don’t just feel familiar, they feel familial. I also knew I would learn a lot thinking in concert with Laurie Allen, the new chief of the Digital Innovation Lab, who was an early architect of the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative. And, of course, it’s exciting to work with the Of the People initiative as it is being developed by the visionary and inspiring Dr. Carla Hayden.

How did you engage with the Library before joining the board? Had you spent much time researching in the Library’s collections?

When I was a professor in California more than a decade ago, I regularly taught with materials from the Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection, named after the early African American bibliographer and historian who worked at the Library of Congress for over fifty years. Murray both curated and bequeathed an important collection of African American materials to the Library. Even though we were in classrooms more than three thousand miles away, my students could embark on lively discussions about early Black religious and radical thought at one of the country’s (many) peaks of anti-Black violence because these rare materials were digitized. Teaching digitized pamphlets was an early inspiration for the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), which I co-founded and co-direct. For over ten years, the CCP has been digitizing and transcribing the scattered materials that document the little-known Colored Conventions movement for early Black legal rights, labor justice, educational access, and social dignity — the precursor to the NAACP – to make these records freely available and searchable for the very first time.

Mary Church Terrell, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front. None. [Between 1880 and 1900, printed later] Photograph.

Mary Church Terrell, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front. None. [Between 1880 and 1900, printed later] Photograph. //www.loc.gov/item/97500102/.

Fast forward fifteen years to 2021, and the Colored Conventions Project and its sister project, Douglass Day, were able to participate in transcribing LOC collections directly as we partnered with By the People to make the papers of voting rights advocate and educator Mary Church Terrell accessible to the public. Douglass Day is held on Frederick Douglass’s chosen birthday, Feb. 14th, so we call it “a day of collective love for Black history.” Founded by Terrell to commemorate Douglass’s death more than a century ago, it was revived as a global transcribe-a-thon by the Colored Conventions Project and its co-director, Jim Casey, who, along with CCP community engagement director, Denise Burgher, lead the teams that organize this yearly celebration to make Black records and history accessible. Working with LOC digital collection leaders including Lauren Algee and Trevor Owens made for a thrilling Douglass Day 2021; it brought a record number of new registered volunteers to By the People and thousands came together to make Terrell’s papers more accessible, breaking the LOC’s former single-day transcription record.

As the founding director of the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), you’ve been working to bring stories of 19th century Black, and in particular Black women’s, organizing efforts to the forefront of our collective memory. What are some of the key principles of these historic conventions that you think are especially relevant for people today – not only scholars of the era but the general public who may have learned little about these movements in school?

  1. Organize Collectively. Organizing collectively creates strong and diverse networks and builds lasting institutions.
  2. Ask critical questions. Women’s influence in convention records is barely recorded. What’s the lesson? When you know that groups were involved but their leadership and contributions have been erased or minimized, ask the questions that will surface their roles and labor.
  3. Organize multi-generationally. Many of the lions of nineteenth-century Black activism first participated in these multi-day political gatherings in their late teens and early twenties.
  4. May I add a bonus? As groups you’re in organize, it can be helpful to articulate their principles—it encourages intra-group accountability and explains the organization’s decision-making and interventions to others. Here are ours.

Digital elements like transcription tools, and of course the CCP website, are such important components of connecting CCP and its work with the public. As a digital humanist, how do you think evolving technology can help open new doorways into the past?

When digital tools enable distributed and collective models, they enhance the ways thousands of people actively contribute to public history making. This is where our vision, the LOC’s vision under Dr. Hayden, and CCDI’s mission resonate in concert. Of course, there’s nothing inherently democratizing about tools, digital or otherwise. It depends on whose hands they’re in and the principles that guide their creation, distribution, and uses.

Frances E.W. Harper, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing front. 1898. Photograph.

Frances E.W. Harper, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing front. 1898. Photograph. //www.loc.gov/item/97513270/.

You were honored among just 24 others this year as a 2022 MacArthur Fellow, a program with a famously secretive selection process. Can you share a bit of what went through your mind when you first learned about your selection? Do you have any future goals (research or otherwise) you hope the fellowship will help you achieve?

We are very excited about celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frances E.W. Harper’s birth in 2025 and hope any attention that emerges from this quite humbling award can be directed toward invigorating that work. Born free in Baltimore, Watkins Harper is known as the first Black woman who became an official speaker on the anti-slavery circuit. As a steadfast activist who traveled all over the nation advocating for full civil rights beyond the ending of slavery, Harper is one of the few Black women whose name is listed as a speaker at numerous Colored Convention meetings. She is also the most prolific Black woman poet, novelist, and essayist of the nineteenth century. The 200th anniversary of her birth falls just one year before the 250th anniversary of the nation’s formation in 1776—and raises the question of what it would mean to put Black women in the center of a national story about democracy, freedom, and independence from tyranny. We are looking forward to working with partners to digitize and transcribe Frances E.W. Harper’s scattered papers, to hosting a conference on her legacy as a writer and activist, and to creating digital exhibits and an arts-based curriculum that highlights these questions. We just worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia to create a two-panel mural by Ernel Martinez, the first public art to commemorate the Conventions movement.  We hope to commemorate Frances E. W. Harper in public arts and monuments in ways that highlight her commitments to issues the nation still grapples with today.

Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. Portrait of Langston Hughes. 1936. Photograph.

Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. Portrait of Langston Hughes. 1936. Photograph. //www.loc.gov/item/2004663043/.

Since you’re a writer and the daughter of a poet: What’s the last poem you read that really struck you? What about the poem struck you?

I just came back from my first of eight campus visits as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar. As I’m giving the public talk, called “Why Didn’t We Know?!: The Forgotten History of the Colored Conventions and 19th-Century Black Political Organizing,” different attendees stand up in the audience to read stanzas of the poem “Let America Be America Again” by the famous writer Langston Hughes, scion of two leaders of the Convention movement: brothers John Mercer Langston and Charles Langston (Hughes’s grandfather). It’s a momentous poem in long form; both a call to and a jeremiad about the unfinished work of a resonant and real American democracy, it echoes in verse the call for liberty and equality the earlier Langston brothers made in their activism and leadership as well as in the Black conventions they attended for more than thirty years as educators, organizers, and legislators. I’ll leave you with these two stanzas by Langston Hughes:

 

 

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

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