Emory Report
February 16, 2009
Volume 61, Number 20



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February 16
, 2009
Illuminating hidden civil rights collections

By elaine justice

Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library is one of four institutions that will share a $900,000 grant awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to support “Working for Freedom: Documenting Civil Rights Organizations,” a collaborative project designed to bring to public notice more than a dozen “hidden” manuscript collections housed in Atlanta and New Orleans archives.

Emory and the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History received a joint award of $400,000, while the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center and the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University were awarded $250,000 each to complete their projects. Funds for the CLIR grant were provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

At MARBL, the grant will be used to help process materials in the archive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which Emory acquired last year. Auburn Avenue will process materials in its collections on the Atlanta Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as the personal papers of Andrew Young.

Together, the SCLC archive at Emory and NAACP and Andrew Young papers at Auburn Avenue chronicle some of the most transformational moments and movements of the civil rights era, says Randall Burkett, curator of Emory’s African American Collections.

The SCLC archive contains some 1,000 boxes, the second largest collection at MARBL, says Burkett. Most of the materials date from after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 (the King Library and Archives at the King Center holds most pre-1968 items). The archive at Emory chronicles SCLC presidencies of Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph Lowery, who succeeded King.

“What’s important about these materials is the detailed documentation about local chapters, such as field agent reports, local dues that were being submitted, and receipts and reimbursements made,” says Burkett. “From these types of records you can get a very good sense of the work being done on the ground and who were the active participants of SCLC work throughout the South.”

The joint grant to Emory and Auburn Avenue will allow each institution to hire a lead archivist and graduate students from area universities to help with processing the collections, says Susan McDonald, coordinator of arrangement and description services at MARBL and director of the project.

“The grant means we will be able to do this work much, much sooner than we could have possibly done it otherwise,” she says.

“We’re excited about giving graduate students with an interest in these materials the opportunity to work on them,” says McDonald. “MARBL will benefit from their subject expertise and they will learn about doing archival research; it’s win-win for everyone.”

The processing teams at Emory and Auburn Avenue will be using for the first time a technique called the Greene-Meissner processing model, which advocates “more product, less process” and should help streamline the teams’ ability to deal with such large collections.