Saving the Race: Black Archives and the Structuring of African American History 1914-1968

Dissertation Summary

During the early twentieth century, just as universities and professional associations were beginning to expect objectivity as a standard for historical scholarship, black archives emerged from a more personal and political tradition. Nineteenth-century black collectors used records to prove their race’s long legacy of culture and achievement to a skeptical public. These collectors’ subjective approach to history informed black archives because their libraries often became the basis for later institutionalized collections. These archives then continued to serve as tools for instilling racial pride, fighting prejudice and repairing the gaps and erasures particular to African diasporic history. Because of this material’s wide use amongst scholars, writers, students and others, I argue that these collections should function as a framework for understanding twentieth-century black historical consciousness.

In my dissertation, I explore how each archive (the Moorland Library at Howard University, the Schomburg Collection at Harlem’s 135th Street public library, the Special Negro Collection at the Hall branch library in Chicago, the Johnson Collection at Yale University, and the Gershwin Collection at Fisk University) influenced or reflected time periods, communities, and ideologies. However, more broadly, I argue that the recent push back against ‘the archive’ is really a criticism of professional historical writing—not necessarily the archives themselves. Scholarship like Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 1995 Silencing the Past or Saidiya Hartman’s 2008 “Venus in Two Acts” explore how the processes of historical production (including the building of archives) can ignore marginalized or missing voices. Yet these arguments also overlook the important work that black archives performed in assembling a history for African Americans, an undertaking that inherently acknowledged profound loss and potential. Embracing this acknowledgement, I argue that researchers can recuperate absences, inconsistencies, discoveries and their own personhood in their work by positioning ‘the archive’ as a framing device for their historical writing.

Or, to summarize, my dissertation argues that African Americans approached history differently out of necessity, and that perspective can productively inform scholarship today.


Melanie Chambliss is a Ph.D. Candidate in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale University. Her teaching and research interests include African American history and literature, archival theories, twentieth-century US intellectual history, and cultural studies. Her work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Howard University.