Angela Davis Frees Herself of Her Personal Archives, Which Go to Harvard

Angela Davis on Feb. 25, 1972, a day after she was released on $102,500 bail for murder, conspiracy and kidnapping charges  in connection with the escape attempt at a Marin County Courthouse shoot-out in California in August 1970 (AP Images)
Angela Davis on Feb. 25, 1972, a day after she was released on $102,500 bail for murder, conspiracy and kidnapping charges in connection with the escape attempt at a Marin County Courthouse shoot-out in California in August 1970 (AP Images)

Angela Davis, the academic, womanist, activist and freedom fighter who has been part of the quest for black liberation and dignity for more than 50 years, has decided to give her personal effects to Harvard.


The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study announced Tuesday that it has acquired more than 150 boxes of papers, photographs, pamphlets and other material that span Davis’ life.

The Schlesinger was founded in 1943 and is one of the leading archives of women’s history, home to the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Betty Friedan, as well as from organizations like the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, creators of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Davis said that she liked the idea of having her papers housed near those of friends like the poets June Jordan and Pat Parker and the legal scholar Patricia Williams, as well as the records of lesser-known women who powered various social movements.

“As a scholar and activist, I’ve always worked with others,” she said in a telephone interview with the New York Times. “I have so much respect for many of the women who have chosen to put their papers here.”

The New York Times reports that her effects range from her childhood in Birmingham, Ala., to her studies with the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who, the Times reports, “recalled her as his most brilliant student”) and her more recent activism with groups like Critical Resistance, the prison-abolition advocacy group she helped found in 1997.

Davis’ bounty of work is a treasure trove of black excellence, including a yellowed typescript of Davis’ 1974 autobiography, complete with neatly handwritten queries and comments from her editor, Toni Morrison.


Material from the famous 1969 trial where she was accused of murder is also included. The Times reports:

[The archives’] richest vein concerns the tumultuous period that began in 1969, when then Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered her fired from her teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, because of her Communist Party membership, before she had even taught her first class. Her case drew broad attention, but it was her activism on behalf of the Soledad Brothers, three California inmates accused of murdering a white prison guard, that made her internationally famous.

In 1970, she was charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges after guns she had purchased was used in an attack on the Marin County Courthouse that was aimed at liberating the Soledad Brothers, but instead left four people, including the attacker, dead. The trial that followed — in which Professor Davis participated in her own defense — sparked an international campaign, turning “Free Angela” into a global rallying cry.

Professor Davis had not been present at the courthouse, and witnesses testified that the guns had been bought to guard the Soledad Brothers’ defense headquarters. In 1972, after spending 16 months in prison, she was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.


The collection also includes some material Davis said that she had entirely forgotten, like a 120-page diary that she seemingly kept during her trial. Much of her personal correspondence was reportedly destroyed by a house fire, and many of her papers were seized by the FBI at the time of the trial.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Although Harvard declined to disclose how much it paid for Davis’ effects, we do know that the money went directly to her and that Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, run by Henry Louis Gates Jr., contributed half the funds for the purchase, while the Schlesinger Library contributed the other half.

Gates called Davis “one of the major political theorists of the second half of the 20th century.”


She is also the namesake of a generation of activists, scholars and even writers and editors who use her “Free Angela” button as their avatar.

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.


Thotline Bling: black girl supremacy

I never knew people got paid for these things. I guess b/c I usually think of them as bequests in a will? But I am glad Ms. Davis got her coins! And that her effects will be properly memorialized and made available for study.

It would be nice to see a treasure this dope go to an HBCU. Mine in particular, (of course!) which is home to the oldest African American museum in the country. ;)