Applying Organization and Discovering Significance

Posted on May 10, 2011

Following my work on the Johnson-Nance Papers which I discussed in my last post, I began processing the Georgia Ragsdale Curtis Papers which I worked on during the months of November and December 2010. After this I organized a couple smaller collections before beginning work on the William Welling Papers, a collection I processed during the months of February and March 2011. Both the Ragsdale Curtis and Welling papers had similarities in the fact that they were both large, unorganized collections of documents created by or collected primarily by single individuals. The bulk of the material in both collections also dated to roughly the same time period, the 1960s and 1970s. The main parallel I drew between the two collections didn't have to do with the documents they were made up of, though, but how I approached processing them and the transformative meaning they took as I worked my way through them. When I first started working with both the Ragsdale Curtis Papers and the Welling Papers, it was unclear what their significance was, most of the papers in each pertaining to seemingly mundane aspects of their lives. As I worked through the organization of each collection and wrote up their respective finding aids, however, I came to construct a clearer portrait of Georgia Ragsdale Curtis and William Welling and their individual importance.

When I first opened the unorganized boxes containing the Georgia Ragsdale Curtis Papers I found a wide variety of material pertaining to an African American family from Roanoke, Virginia ranging from late nineteenth century photographs, early twentieth century high school papers and yearbooks, church papers and programs, seemingly random newspaper clippings, magazines, paper fans from a funeral home, airline tickets to Hawaii, early twenty-first century notes, audio records, old books, and other assorted documents. I began sorting through everything by roughly arranging the papers and objects chronologically. Reading through the handwritten papers and connecting names to photographs, I soon began to comprehend a family tree that connected each of the individuals to each other, parent to child, sister to sister, husband to wife, etc.  Most of the collection centered around one individual, Georgia Lee Ragsdale, born June 4, 1913. It became apparent that Georgia was close to her sister Laura Alice Ragsdale, and later in life when Laura died years before Georgia, Georgia evidently came into possession of some of Laura's things, as papers from her life were found scattered amongst Georgia's. The earliest materials in the collection include a 1912 handwritten diary from a Ragsdale family member, most likely Georgia and Laura's father. School diplomas from the 1920s and 1930s, many of which had to be flattened due to being rolled in storage, accompany Georgia's college autograph book from 1934 and Laura's high school autograph book from 1932. Both books include personal handwritten notes from school friends, while an original poem relating Hitler to the Devil appears in the 1934 book, an indication of growing American antipathy to Nazi Germany prior to World War II. Bachelor of Science degrees from the Virginia State College for Negroes in Ettrick, Virginia are also present, one for James William Curtis from 1939, the man whom Georgia married, and another for Georgia herself from 1943.

It was the next portion of Georgia's story that revealed the real significance of the Ragsdale Curtis Papers. During the 1960s Georgia became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and also taught and advised at local high schools as a teacher and later a guidance counselor. Papers regarding moves towards desegregation in the South, newspaper clippings for African American victories and civil rights parades, and magazines headlining civil rights related news fill several folders. Georgia is also revealed to have been a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a member of the NAACP, and a participant in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Memorial fans for Martin Luther King, Jr., after his assassination in 1968, are also included, printed from the Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home.  Yearbooks and school programs document Georgia's role as a teacher during the same time period. The next portion of the collection is made up of a large number of papers from the Blue Ridge Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia in which Georgia took a very active role from at least the 1960s through to her death on April 11, 2008. The third and final series of the collection contains the numerous family photographs of the Ragsdale and Curtis families.

The William Welling Papers contain material of a very different nature than that in the Ragsdale Curtis Papers, but the process by which I approached its organization and the revelation of some significant aspects were similar. The Welling Papers were stored unorganized in eight large file boxes  when I first began to skim their contents to assess what I was working with and by the end would be housed in nine boxes of assorted sizes totaling 5.4 cubic feet. This makes the Welling Papers by far the largest collection I processed while here at the Special Collections Research Center this year. William Blodget Welling was born in 1924 and worked as a journalist for the Hamden Chronicle from 1949-1950. A large portion of Welling's papers came assorted into old binders that Welling evidently put together during his lifetime, describing an individual who was meticulously organized during his time as a writer. The first of these binders included his early journalism work such as clippings of his articles from publications. Welling's work soon turned away from writing news stories, however, to a strong focus on the history of photography. Huge masses of research material, printed and handwritten, on the history of photographic processes, methods and individual photographers make up a very large portion of the Welling collection. Welling went on to publish two books on the history of photography, A Collector's Guide to Nineteenth Century Photographs in 1976 and Photography in America: The Formative Years, 1839-1900 in 1978. Papers from Welling's negotiations with the publishing companies, promotional tactics, and events make up several folders. Other research for unfinished projects of Welling's such as work on the history of flight can also be found in the collection.

Some of the most significant material from Welling's Papers does not involve the creation of Welling's books themselves, but a series of correspondence that Welling had with at least two prominent photographic historians. Starting in 1976 Welling began to correspond with Helmut Gernsheim of Lugano, Switzerland and maintained a friendship with the famous historian until Gernsheim's death in 1995. Many of the letters and postcards talk about visits between Welling and Gernsheim and both of them exchange information on photography. Welling also became friends with George R. Rinhart, another famous photographic historian who became well known for selling a lost daguerreotype  of Edgar Allen Poe for a small fortune. These papers document Rinhart's political campaign for Congress in 1978 and his diplomatic trip to Rhodesia in the midst of the Cold War.

Sorting through such a  massive amount of archival material and constructing finding aids for their use by researchers was useful in furthering my knowledge of how to create something that gives meaning and structure to what is first a large unorganized collection.  I hope that the work I completed with both the Georgia Ragsdale Curtis Papers and the William Welling Papers helps to illuminate to researchers in the future the details of both Georgia and William's lives and the time period in which they lived.

Austin Smith is a graduate student in the Department of History and the 2010-2011 Humanities Computing Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.