You never know what you may find

I came to the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) in the Fall, excited yet a little nervous about beginning my Graduate Assistantship. I had heard wonderful things from other graduate students about their time as Graduate Assistants in the SCRC, and so I was enthused about beginning my assistantship here. Additionally, even though my plan was to become a professor after completing my PhD program in American Studies here at W&M, I wanted to open my mind up to other possible career trajectories. My nervousness came from not knowing much about what archivists do, and hoping that I could pick up the necessary skills quickly.

My fears were put to rest as I was given time to thoroughly explore the SCRC website and learn about what archivists do, familiarize myself with the tools archivists use to do their work, and learn about some of the fascinating projects taking place here. Amy Schindler, University Archivist, patiently instructed me on how to find and pull items I needed from the SCRC’s vast collection.

My first project involved curating an exhibit on the first African American students at the College of William and Mary. This project dovetailed well with my interests in African American Studies. Looking through old yearbooks, newspaper articles, flyers and minutes produced by various student organizations, and many more items, the details of a fascinating (but little known) part of William and Mary history began to emerge. I was somewhat surprised that it wasn’t until 1951 that the first African American student (Hulon Willis) was admitted to the College. I marveled at the high level of activism of the College’s first African American students as they took on the administration and pressed for changes that would make life more bearable for them on campus. This, I thought, was history that needed to be known, and I was honored to be able to help construct the story.

For my second project, I researched issues of the Southern School News and its successor the Southern Education Report which ran from 1954 to 1969, for any mention of events occurring in certain counties in Virginia in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board decision which outlawed segregation in public schools. My work related to the larger DOVE (Desegregation of Virginia Education) project. Researching the progression of events in Virginia during that fifteen year period was absolutely amazing. Many students at the College would probably be surprised to learn of the actions taken by many of the counties to avoid desegregating. In Surry County, for example, the public school system was effectively shut down as all of the County’s white students enrolled in the private segregated school system using state tuition grants; the Black students were relegated to a one-room school which they boycotted, leaving many of the Black students with no education at all. James City County threatened to shut down its public schools immediately if it were forced to comply with desegregation, and King William County did not desegregate until Fall 1961 when one Black student was assigned to the county’s West Point High School. Again, I thought, this history needs to be told.

Currently, I am working on the arrangement and description of the William W. Galt Papers, continuing where Graduate Assistant Jeffrey Flanagan left off last semester. Looking through boxes and boxes full of various documents from the 19th and early 20th Century, I feel like I know William Galt and his family (which included Hugh Blair Grigsby, former Chancellor of the College of William and Mary). Every day, I look forward to immersing myself in the Galt family’s world, ready for the next surprising discovery. One day, I found a bill of sale for the purchase of a slave by Hugh Blair Grigsby! Hopefully, I will be able to provide an update on this project.

Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to take a look at the “African American Student Life at William and Mary” exhibit on the first floor of Swem in the Read and Relax area. Also, if you are working on a school paper, a thesis, or some other project, I encourage you to check out what we’ve got in Special Collections. You never know what you may find!

Tova Johnson is a graduate student in the American Studies Program and the 2009-2010 Archives Intern in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.

This blog post was originally posted on March 4, 2010, and is reposted here because of your editor’s mistake. Apologies to Tova and any errors are mine.