Holding on to African American History

Article excerpt

For decades, white institutions and a handful of historically Black college and university (HBCU) archives have served as the main repositories for document and artifacts that tell the story of the history and contributions of people of African descent. But countless other pieces of Black America's historical fabric are collecting dust in church basements or crumbling on bookshelves.

That situation could soon change.

Fisk University, along with a coalition of Black institutions and international organizations, is gearing up to retrieve, preserve and distribute the historical and intellectual properties of African Americans, Organizers of the effort, known as the HOLDINGS Projects (Holding Our Library Documents Insures Nobility, Greatness and Strength), envision the formation of a single repository of historical information documenting the African American experience.

HOLDINGS is an outgrowth of the newly revived Race Relations Institute at Fisk. Urban City Foods, Burger King, the La-Van and Wendy Hawkins Foundation, the National Council for Blacks Studies, the National Council of Negro Women, and other soon-to-be name HBCUs are initial partners in the preservation project. While Fisk will be the central repository, collection and preservation sites will be housed at HBCUs and Black organizations in: Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; Tallahassee, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Accra, Ghana.

At Fisk, the high-tech preservation project will, for the first-time, restore the pages of the worn, fragile Bible given to Abraham Lincoln by slaves upon their release. It will also provide a road map for scholars tracking the emergence of African American women into politics. And it will rescue endangered Black historical collections from further extinctions.

The HOLDINGS project will include scanning microfilm copies of books as well as original works. It will store them is digital form so that they can be distributed -- via the Internet -- to the nation and around the world. Modeled after "Project Open book," a similar document preservation effort at Yale University, HOLDINGS will also make it possible for books to be reprinted on high-quality printing systems.

Beginning this summer, the Encyclopedia Africana Project (EAP) in Accra, Ghana, is expected to transform nearly ten million words in several history volumes into electronic reading material using digital-imaging technology. EAP is considered the last major project of Fisk's most celebrated graduate, W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the goals of the National Council for Black Studies, a partner in HOLDINGS, is identifying scholars among its membership who want to have their books or works-in-progress digitalized for wider distribution. But while access to new Black scholarship can fuel the knowledge base and help fledgling Black studies programs to grow, there is another important reason the council supports the project--so that Black scholars can maintain control of their own intellectual material.

"It is important for Black people and African people throughout the diaspora to preserve their writings, to interpret their history, to publish in a way that will allow us to own out own history. …