Searching for a Name, Finding a Community

Identifying authorship of anything is always a long and arduous process, but it is made increasingly difficult when the author is not a famous member of the community.  Norfolk, Virginia, was a bustling town at the start of the twentieth century and had an African American population thirsty for rights and acceptance.  One such person was the author of the 1902 diary I was assigned to research.  While she certainly made an impact on her community, there were no books written about her and only snit bits of information that gave veiled clues to identity.  What emerged through my research was the experience of a minority as it fought to find a place in the community.

My objective was to verify the work of another student who had done some initial research into the identity of the author and suggested a name.  Though my own research revealed that Lucy B. Dogan could not be the author of the dairy in question, other findings of the student were useful avenues to pursue. The student had created a list of important events and people mentioned in the diary, which provided wonderful starting information.

Originally, the diary was listed as a 1901 diary, but through research into events mentioned in the diary, it quickly became clear that the diary could not have been written in 1901, but instead had to have been written in 1902.  I came to this conclusion by reading digitized New York Times articles from the turn of the century. The author of the diary mentioned the destruction of the Columbia Atlantic Hotel and a volcanic eruption on the isle of Martinique.  Newspaper articles showed these two catastrophic events as having occurred in 1902, not 1901 as had originally been supposed.  Also, on a very basic level, the dates listed in the diary itself meant it could not have been written in 1901.

The diary was written in the Physician’s Daily Memorandum.  Each page had the day of the week and  the month at the top, but there was no year. There were full dates, however, accompanying the quotes from doctors that were printed above the empty space which was intended for writing.   There are other examples of diaries written in books such as this, so identifying the type of diary might prove useful to a researching who is studying this phenomenon.  This book was essentially an advertisement for a drug called Pepto Manguam.  This drug was supposed to cure digestive complaints, and the blurbs at the top of each page paint the drug as the miracle cure-all.  The dates listed next to each quote were from varying times in 1901.  On the first page, January 1, the quote was dated from September of 1901.  This meant the diary could not have been written in 1901, but instead had to have been written in 1902.

I learned that little things, like a difference of one year, can make a huge difference in the type of information a dairy provides.  Since I knew the diary was written in 1902, I was able to identify the conference the author attended in Atlanta as a major event.  This event, The Negro Young People's Christian and Educational Congress (also known as the Christian and Educational Congress of Young Colored People at Atlanta) was held August 6 to 11 of 1902 and was attended by over 7,000 people.  The New York Times reported it as an important gathering with a number of influential speakers.  At this event the author also met the Hunton's.  Mr. Hunton was the first general secretary of the African American branch of the YMCA.  Without knowing the true date of the diary, this information might have been overlooked.  While it proved to be a dead end in identifying the author, it certainly would be a useful avenue for other researchers looking to learn more about gatherings at the turn of the century.

Another piece that could easily have been missed was the mention of a medical association.  Throughout the diary the author mentions a doctor who she appears to be in a close relationship with.  Through further investigation, I realized this doctor was probably involved in the National Medical Association.  The NMA was formed because the American Medical Association would not allow black members.  The NMA was involved in a number of projects, and its members were instrumental in promoting the development of new healthcare centers for African Americans.  This seemingly trivial mention turned out to not only lead me to the identity of the author, but also expanded the picture of the development of the African American medical community and shows that the author of the diary was involved in a number of activities which empowered the black community.

In the end, I consulted census records, genealogy websites, newspapers, finding aids for other collections, obituaries, publications by Howard University, and many other sources.  By using all of these resources, I was finally able to theorize that the author of the diary is Florence Barber, wife of Doctor Philip L. Barber.  Florence was involved in a number of activities within the black community in Norfolk including the YMCA.  Her story was one of a black woman living at the turn of the century and has certainly inspired me not only to look further into the development of these organizations which sought to empower and inspire the black community, but also how they were experienced on a personal level.  Hopefully establishing the identity of the author as well as identifying some of the people and organizations described will help other researchers in their own quest for a deeper understanding of this period.

Lauren Wallace is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.