Being Seen and Heard: African American Documentation Initiatives in Iowa and Minnesota

By Neal, Kathryn M. | Negro History Bulletin, January-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Being Seen and Heard: African American Documentation Initiatives in Iowa and Minnesota


Neal, Kathryn M., Negro History Bulletin


   I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar
   Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of
   substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and

   liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible,
   understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads
   you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been
   surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me,
   they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their
   imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me. (1)

These words, which open Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, bear special meaning when applied to the concept of history. Indeed, an entire people can be rendered virtually invisible over time if their stories and experiences are not documented and preserved.

Until somewhat recently, relatively few primary sources that document the history of African Americans in Iowa and Minnesota had been collected. The population of blacks in either state has been quite small, relative to the rest of the population. According to 1998 statistics, 57,000 of the Iowa's 2,862,000 residents are African American, while there are 141,000 blacks in Minnesota's population of 4,725,000. (2) Yet whether the lives and experiences of a segment of a state's population are preserved should not be determined by its size. Work is currently underway to preserve the voices of African Americans in Iowa and Minnesota. This article describes the experiences of a selection of African American women in Iowa and preparations are being made to collect the papers of African American literary artists and affiliated individuals in Minnesota. To give these two groups of people proper coverage in anything short of a book-length publication is difficult. (3) Instead, the purpose of this essay is to bring them greater visibility by highlighting a few individuals, organizations, and collections.

Iowa Women's Archives co-founder Louise Noun believed that the stories of African American women in Iowa bore telling. Noun recognized that relatively little primary source material pertaining to African American Iowans had been collected by the state's other archives, historical societies, and libraries, though the history of black people in the state predates the granting of its official statehood in 1845. (4) The Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, and the University of Iowa Foundation launched a campaign to secure funding for what was then intended to be a two-year project to build a core collection of the personal papers and organizational records of black women with Iowa connections. Several corporations and foundations contributed financially, including Central Life Assurance, Equitable of Iowa Companies, The Des Moines Register, the Principal Financial Group, Proctor and Gamble, U.S. WEST Communications, a foundation called the State Historical Society, Inc., and the University of Iowa Black Alumni Association. A five-member advisory board was assembled to guide the project, and in August 1995, I joined the staff of the Iowa Women's Archives to direct the effort. At that time, the archives housed approximately six collections that documented the lives and experiences of African American women. That number has now increased to more than 50 manuscript collections and includes oral history interviews. My term appointment, which was extended for another two years, was slated to end in August 1999. In February 1999, however, I left the University of Iowa to assume the position of curator of the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Much of an acquisitions archivist's job involves having conversations. Many potential leads arise through conversations with other archival donors, contacts, and audience members at talks. Sometimes they are uncovered via the media-newspaper and magazine articles, television stories, and the like. …

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