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Five Questions with Adrienne Cannon, Afro-American History and Culture Specialist, Manuscript Division

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The following is a guest post from Adrienne Cannon of the Library of Congress.

Adrienne Cannon (on right) showing historic documents to Elaine Steele.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I am the Afro-American History and Culture Specialist for the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. My duties include developing and promoting the division’s collections pertaining to African American history and culture, and providing reference service to researchers. The African American collections span the colonial period to the present and are particularly strong for the study of the twentieth century civil rights movement. The division holds the original records of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, as well as the microfilmed records of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These records are enhanced and augmented by the personal papers of many prominent activists such as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Arthur Spingarn, Joseph Rauh, Robert L. Carter, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, James Forman, Edward W. Brooke, Patricia Roberts Harris, and Jackie Robinson.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

One of my favorite items is a sales contract between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for the slave John Freeman, which is on display in The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom exhibition. Maryland doctor William Baker sold John Freeman to President Thomas Jefferson for $400 in 1804 on the condition that he would receive his freedom in eleven years. Freeman was Jefferson’s dining room servant at the White House and accompanied him on visits to Monticello. At Monticello, Freeman became engaged to Melinda Colbert, a niece of Sally Hemings. The newly inaugurated President James Madison purchased Freeman’s “remaining term of service” for $231.81 on April 19, 1809. That same year, Jefferson’s son-in-law John Wayles Eppes freed Melinda Colbert. She joined John Freemen in Washington, D.C., and the couple lived on the grounds of the White House. In 1815, Madison granted Freeman his freedom. Freeman legally married Melinda Colbert and settled in Washington. The historian Carter G. Woodson acquired John Freeman’s copy of his original bill of sale and the sales contract from his descendants. Woodson donated manuscripts he collected documenting black history and culture, and his personal papers, to the Library of Congress during 1929-1938. He selected the Library of Congress, in part, because the reading rooms were not segregated.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

The Carter G. Woodson Papers also include the papers of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and father of seven children. His son Henry Ossawa became a renowned painter, his daughter Hallie was the first female physician to practice medicine in Alabama. Some of the blank pages in Bishop Tanner’s diary (November 1860-April 1861) were filled with a child’s artwork–drawings of a house, figures, an occasional stroke of watercolor. I’ve wondered if Henry was the artist or one of the artists. The diary was recently on display in The Civil War in America exhibition.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

The principal, students, and teachers from the Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney, Maryland, visited the Library of Congress to view the Rosa Parks Collection and tour The Civil Rights Act of 1964 exhibition. I presented a “Show and Tell” of a display of 81 items from the collection that I created with Maricia Battle, a curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division. The display chronicled Rosa Parks’ private life, activism, and international acclaim.  The students listened attentively, studied the manuscripts and photographs, and took snapshots; a student working on the school’s newspaper asked questions; the principal expressed her appreciation. The group’s response was gratifying.

Fountain Hughes
Fountain Hughes

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?

One of the advantages the Library of Congress offers is the range and diversity of its collection. Thus, the inherent value of a manuscript collection is enhanced by collections of a comparable nature in the Manuscript Division and other custodial divisions. The interconnectivity enables the Library to produce major exhibitions and digital presentations that are layered, nuanced, and comprehensive. For example, in The Civil Rights Act of 1964 exhibit the Albany Movement is represented by a transcript of a telephone conversation between NAACP Field Secretary Vernon Jordan, and NAACP Director of Branches Gloster B. Current from the NAACP Records, and Bernice Johnson’s statement on her arrest at a prayer protest from the James Forman Papers. The narratives intersect on December 13, 1961. Jordan describes the prayer protest he is witnessing. Johnson describes her participation in the protest, arrest, and incarceration. In the same exhibition, slavery is represented by the sales contract for John Freeman and the oral history interview of Fountain Hughes, who was born a slave in Charlottesville, Virginia. His grandfather, Wormley Hughes, belonged to Thomas Jefferson and was a member of the Hemings family. The full interview is available in the Voices from the Days of Slavery presentation.

Comments (3)

  1. Adrienne is a genius. We were very fortunate to have the benefit of her expertise for the 1964 Civil Rights Act exhibit.

  2. I’m a reporter with Spectrum News in Tampa and I’m doing a BHM Story on Carter G. Woodson. I’d like to get in contact with Adrienne Cannon concerning getting copies of historic photos and documents of Dr. Woodson for my story. I can be reached at 727-698-6877

    • You can work through the Library’s Communications Office or use the Manuscript Division’s Ask a Librarian service to reach out to Dr. Cannon.

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