Anti-Racist and Black Liberation Archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Drawing of Civil Rights Protest Signs
Original Drawing by Mozelle Thompson, 1960s. The New Leader Records.

The extrajudicial murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which followed the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and coincided with a global pandemic that has taken disproportionate toll on African Americans, reveals that systemic racism is a life or death matter–for the millions of people who suffer its effects, and for a nation that purports to believe in equal justice for all citizens.

For many white Americans (myself included) the events of the past several weeks have driven home the lesson that it is not good enough to not be individually racist. Inaction in the face of systemic racism is complicity. What does this mean for a predominantly white field, like special collections, at a predominantly white institution, like Columbia?

It would be easy to point to one collection or another, to celebrate the fact that Columbia owns a particular piece of African American history, and then to stop there. But, doing that would be self-serving, a dissonant attempt to burnish the reputation of an institution whose earliest history depended, in part, upon slavery and the slave trade. The emphasis should not be on the fact that Columbia holds this or that, but rather on what, specifically, the voices in these collections have to teach us about anti-racism. What follows, then, is not an exhaustive list of Columbia’s African American special collections, but a curated one that includes a white abolitionist, a Japanese American activist, as well as numerous African American journalists, writers, and students. 

– Sean M. Quimby, Director, Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library houses several important archives created by artists, activists and organizations who dedicated their lives to fighting racism and promoting black freedom struggles. These collections reveal the long history of police brutality, community organizing, and the work of ensuring that Black Lives Matter. Because the reading room remains closed due to COVID-19 this blog post will focus on digitized content currently accessible to the public.

The Amiri Baraka Papers

A central figure in the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (d. 2014) stands as one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century. As a leader of the Committee for a Unified Newark, Baraka worked in local struggles around public housing, schools, and unemployment. During the 1970s he turned his energies to the Third World Liberation movement while continuing to call for national liberation of African Americans. The Baraka Collection at Columbia’s RBML features a digitized audio archive of poetry readings, television interviews, radio broadcasts and public speeches that will interest activists and scholars of anti-racist thought. Of particular interest are recordings of speeches Baraka delivered in the late 1960s and early 1970s, envisioning a revolutionary cultural program for black art and religion.

Amiri Baraka Video Clip
Amiri Baraka Interview, 1966. Amiri Baraka Papers.

The Hubert H. Harrison Papers

One of Harlem’s first great soapbox orator, Hubert H. Harrison was a brilliant and influential writer, educator, and movement builder during the early decades of the 20th century. In the words of civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, he was “the father of Harlem radicalism.” This digital project contains hundreds of documents, clippings, ephemera, notes, and diaries from the Harrison papers.

Anti-Lynching Pamphlet, 1927
Anti-Lynching Pamphlet, 1927. Hubert H. Harrison Papers.

Black Journalists Oral History Project

The Black Journalists oral history collection’s ninety-three interviews document the history of the African American press from the late nineteenth century to the time that the interviews were taken in the early 1970s, with a particular focus on the 1930s-1960s. Given the struggles of Black journalists in today’s predominately white U.S. newsrooms, the collection offers valuable insights into the early years of Black journalists’ struggles to shape their role in those newsrooms and the evolution of the Black press.

African American women and men in a newsroom with typewriters and newspapers on desks
Photo from The Black Press Research Collective |

Select Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC) Resources

Reminiscences of Robert Bowen: oral history, Student Movement of the 1960s Oral History Project 1984. Bobby Bowen was a leader of the Black Panther Party in Richmond, CA. In the excerpt here he discusses coming to consciousness through reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Reminiscences of Bayard Rustin : oral history, 1987. Peace, civil rights and labor activist Bayard Rustin is featured in this OHAC post, “Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin on the class conscious roots of SNCC.

Reminiscences of Helen Suzman: oral history, 1984. Helen Suzman, as a member of the South African Parliament, was active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa

Oral history interview with Pedro L. Velásquez, Gay Officers Action League, 1992. An intriguing and timely look into the intersection of race, sexuality, gender and policing through Pedro Velasquez’s employment with the NYPD.

Alexander Gumby Scrapbooks

A long-overlooked figure of the Harlem Renaissance, L.S. Alexander Gumby created more than 150 scrapbooks to document African American and African Diasporic politics, history, and culture. This digital exhibition offers an overview of his unique creations, which contain a diverse array of manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, artwork, clippings, and ephemera. Gumby explained that his “History of the Negro in Scrapbook . . . could well be called ‘The Unwritten History'” of the United States, due to the lack of general scholarly attention paid to African Americans by historians in the early- to mid-20th century.

Frederick Douglass page from Gumby Scrapbooks
A page from Gumby’s scrapbook on Frederick Douglass.

1968 Digital Projects

Drawing on collections from the RBML and University Archives, two digitized exhibitions on 1968 both contain documents and materials on the Black freedom movement on Morningside Heights, and around the globe. 1968: Columbia in Crisis focuses on the campus protests of that year, while 1968: The Global Revolutions examines protest movements from around the world.

Black Panther Newspaper, 1969
Black Panther Newspaper, 1969. RBML collections.

Other Archival Collections

Beyond these digitized resources, the RBML holds several important collections created by anti-racist activists and organizations. Among the highlights of these resources are the Yuri Kochiyama papers, the Annie Stein papers, the records of United Bronx Parents, the papers of civil rights leader and judge Constance Baker Motley, and archives related to radical abolitionists John Brown and Sydney Howard Gay.

Malcolm X Postcard to Yuri Kochiyama, 1963.

Documenting Black Activism in Harlem and Morningside Heights

University Archives and RBML collections document the history of student and community activism on campus, and in Harlem.

For more on student activism on campus related to policing, violence, and gentrification, see: “A Brief History of Anti-Black Violence and Policing at Columbia University” and “Columbia’s West Harlem Expansion: A Look at the Issues.”

Anti-Racism Workshop Flyer, 1970.
Anti-Racism Workshop Flyer, 1970. University Protest and Activism Collection.