As a young graduate student conducting research on the black freedom struggle, I had the distinct honor and privilege of visiting the National Archives for Black Women’s History, a vital repository of the history of black women’s contributions to this country, housed in the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, a national historic site in the nation’s capital. The archives, named after the brilliant African-American activist and educator who was an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt and ally of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, contains a treasure trove related to black women’s social and political struggles for freedom and citizenship.
The recent news that the National Park Service plans to close, on Feb. 18, the first and only stand-alone national archive dedicated to the achievements and activism of African-American women and move it to the NPS’ Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md., comes as a major shock and disappointment.
The collection is more than a testament to the heroic activism of black women who fought, struggled, marched, bled and were jailed on the front lines of civil rights struggles during the 20th century. The archives, which were established only after intense political organizing, reflect how living black history continues to shape and inform the present. Documenting the way in which black women, so often rendered invisible in mainstream civil rights narratives and remembrances, were actually key architects in shaping the black freedom struggle and its conception of democratic renewal is vitally important for the 21st century.
Before the historic arrival of first lady Michelle Obama on the world stage, there were women such as Ella Baker, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Mary McLeod Bethune, for whom Bethune-Cookman University is named, combating racism and sexism within the black community. Moving the archives from the Bethune Council House represents a bitter rejection of both our national past and uncertain present, when so many black women continue to struggle for recognition and dignity in a society that too often demonizes their existence even as it dismisses their contributions to making America a more free and democratic nation.
A group of leading scholars and activists has formed a coalition to urge the NPS to reconsider its decision. Bettye Collier-Thomas, a Temple University historian, fought for the Bethune Council House’s original designation more than 30 years ago. “It was a long and brutal fight,” she said, “that led to the 1980 congressional designation of Mary McLeod Bethune’s last residence in the District of Columbia as a National Historic Site.”
In a very real sense, the struggle to save the Council House as the home of the archives reflects a broader contemporary historical trend in which African Americans find themselves fighting struggles long thought to have been won.
The irony of this planned move is that it’s scheduled to take place not only during Black History Month but also in a year commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
For years the stories of the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who helped preserve and protect black families against long odds and managed to live and even thrive in unimaginably harsh circumstances have found their home in the Council House. Their stories make up the bone and marrow of African-American history and its central place in the creation of this nation.
The moving of the archives to the Landover facility isn’t merely the reshelving of books in a less accessible location. Nor is preserving the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House as the home of the archives a mere act of recovering and claiming black history. It represents a keeping of the faith with the heroic and defiant voices of black women who made a way out of no way and, in the process, helped save the nation’s very soul.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, is due out in March. Follow him on Twitter.