As a grad student and now a professional archivist, I find myself drawn to integration stories. This might be a function of being in Maryland, where describing the topic as fraught is a vast understatement. But lately I’ve been thinking there’s another reason.
I’ve written and thought a lot about school integration, first at the University of Maryland where I wrote a series for the archives blog called “Trailblazers,” which stemmed from a research project about Parren Mitchell, the first African-American student to take all of his classes at the College Park campus and receive his degree from there (a masters in Sociology, another subject near to my heart). Those qualifiers- took all of his classes on campus, received an actual UMD-College Park degree- are what I think has sparked my interest in these stories. Because while we use the word “first”, the story is so much more complicated than we want it to be.
At my current job at Gilman School in the heart of what was once whitest, WASPiest Baltimore, I wrote this piece for Women’s History Month to trouble the very notion of what we talk about when we say integration. After all, it’s not as though there weren’t African-Americans on campus from the school’s start in 1897, it’s just that there was no way they could have sent their sons here.
But it was another recent discovery/uncovering that threw my desire to tell these stories into sharp relief. Here, we tell the story of a group that called themselves “The Fantastic Four”- the first four African-American students to graduate from the school, in 1968. The first of these four came to the school in 1963, and has often been referred to (including by me) as “the first”.
Except that wasn’t the case.
I found when doing my work at the University of Maryland that the school and local papers only covered so much of integration stories. They were mostly bland or occasionally self-congratulatory, and always scant on detail. I learned quickly that for “the rest of the story”, I had to turn to the Baltimore Afro-American or “The AFRO”. While still imperfect, it was a treasure trove of names and events that slipped past the notice of larger papers like The Baltimore Sun (for reasons that belong in another post).
In peeking through the AFRO recently for items around the time Gilman integrated, I came across this story:
I found myself oddly furious. Darryl Dunmore wasn’t a name I had heard or come across- what was the deal? I checked our records and found that he did in fact attend the school, and so there were two African-Americans here in 1963- one in 7th and one in 8th grade. Dunmore didn’t graduate from here, he transferred out his sophomore year. And maybe that’s why I’d never heard his name pass through anyone’s lips.
But it still made me angry. Hiding in plain sight was this young man who should be celebrated as a “first” (whatever that really means), yet he was relegated to the background.
And that’s when it struck me. The stories we tell about integration are so glossy and short because we can’t wait to move past them. “We did this, and it went great, and now can we just move on please?” We gloss over African-American servants and students who didn’t want to stick around because that just complicates it. After all, we’re doing this great thing to serve a portion of the population we ignored for decades- isn’t that enough?
And (white) archivists have been the architects of this for a long time. We’ve collected the oral histories of those who had good experiences, because that’s easier and supports our institutions. We’ve hidden photos of maids and cooks far away because who wants to see that stuff, right? We helped do this- helped create short, sweet, lazy narratives that make us look good and make other well-meaning white folk feel good.
And so we must undo it. It’s not enough to wait for researchers to happen upon items and do the work for us. At an institutional level, we have to seek to tell the entire story, warts and all. Angry (possibly racist) missives from university presidents? You know where they are. The sub-par wages paid to African-American laborers? You’ve got the ledgers. Our oral history projects must include those who hated every minute of their time on campus. You’re a professional researcher- can find them. If we are to fulfill our mission to our institutions, we need to get uncomfortable and do it.
I know, we don’t do “uncomfortable” well, as a matter of course. But I have a great deal of hope that we can. My Twitter feed is filled with people talking frankly about these topics and lots of other complicated subjects in ways that might have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Folks like Jarrett Drake and Stacie Williams, to name just two, are constant inspirations to me in pushing myself to hack through my own privilege and position to examine the difficult topics right under my nose.
I want the whole story. I want to be part of undoing the benevolent blindness we’ve developed. Is that too much to ask?