History Is Not Dead
John Hope Franklin was born on January 2, 1915. He grew up during the era of Jim Crow and the discrimination he faced would encourage him to become a historian. For example, he signed up to volunteer in the Second World War as a clerical worker. However, despite having a bachelors and masters degree, he was denied because he was, “the wrong colour.” Discrimination like this would follow him throughout his career and heavily influence his writing.
In his 1963 article, “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar” he explains how he faced barriers when trying to access an archive in North Carolina.
“My arrival created a panic and emergency among the administrators that was, itself, an incident of historic proportions. The archivist frankly informed me that I was the first Negro who had sought use of facilities there; and as the architect who designed the building had not anticipated such a situation, my use of the manuscripts and other materials would have to be postponed for several days, during time one of the exhibition rooms would be converted to a reading room for me.”
Franklin’s experience is familiar for any Black person who has visited an archives or worked in the field of history. Franklin would go on to say the archivists did not believe that he had, “the capacity to use the material there.” This would lead to Franklin making it his goal to, “weave into the fabric of American history enough presence of Blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.” Franklin would go on to write, “From Slavery to Freedom” which has sold three million copies and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Franklin would pass away on March of 2009.
The experience of Franklin is one that any Black archivist, historian, or visitor to those spaces can relate to. As Ashley Farmer, a Black history professor at the University of Texas, Notes:
“More than half a century later, Black historians often still feel out of place in the archive. Many of us can recount an archivist’s sense of surprise upon seeing us conduct research confidently, clearly familiar with the procedures and regulations. Assuming it is not one of the few repositories dedicated to Black history, employees are sometimes startled that the archive even houses Black history records and confusion as to the importance or significance of these collections.”
What Ashley describes is something that I feel a strong connection to. The first time I went to the Provincial Archives of Alberta, I was asked by the person at the front desk if I was “lost.” In some cases, archivists would simply ignore my requests.
I recall requesting access to the provinces eugenics case files to see the extent at which Black people were sterilized. However, the archivist instead pulled out ten random case files instead of the dozens that I initially requested. The archivist also didn’t understand why I needed those cases despite explaining my research question multiple times.
It’s also important to note that, throughout my time at the archives, I never encountered a single Black person. Instead, I was alone in a place that did not expect my arrival. This experience, and others like it, is what lead me to begin writing this blog and helped influenced my principles behind my writing.
I choose to navigate these difficult spaces in order for Alberta’s civil rights history to be more accessible and vivid. In my opinion, easily accessible material is what will make this history more well known. For example, the general public knew almost nothing about Viola Desmond until a few years ago. This only changed with a public education campaign in the form of a heritage minute, educational material geared towards youth, and her being depicted on our $10 bill.
Thus, it’s become my principle to ensure my writing is never behind a paywall and is presented in a way that anyone can understand.
Who Owns History?
On September 7, 2018, I published an article for Sprawl Calgary that described the case of Charles Daniels - a Black civil rights hero that fought against segregation at the Sherman Grand Theatre. The post gained considerable interest and lead to a CBC article describing the story and its significance. In response, Alan Hustak, a Calgary based writer, wrote the following post. This post was the catalyst behind me writing this blog entry and I hope to address Alan’s concerns.
In short, Alan’s seems to be concerned that CBC would publish my article because he has previously written about the case. He goes on to cite some examples of his writing and how he has previously “lectured” about it. He then closes the post by saying, “some discovery.” In additional comments he laments that, “nobody reads anything anymore.”
My goal here is to not feud with Alan. However, I would like to clarify a few points. To begin, I’ve never claimed to ‘discover’ anything. Daniel’s case was reported in the local papers at the time and his case has always been at the archives. I always try to stay away from the “discover” narrative due its colonial roots.
Furthermore, I actually cited Alan’s work within the Sprawl article. I am not entirely sure why he suggests that I didn’t do basic background research. In addition, I should note that my writing and Alan’s differs greatly. For starters, I made sure to place the story within a historical context to showcase why Daniel’s action was significant. While Alan’s work spends considerable time trying to excuse Senator Lougheed for racism because he had Black employees.
Alan’s work also lacked any words from Daniels or a discussion of the legacy the case had on Alberta’s Black history and the Black community. This is why I made it a personal goal of mine to pull the court case and made a specific effort to quote Daniels - something that was not done in historical reporting on the Daniels case. I encourage you to read Alan’s section on Daniels and my article to see these considerable differences.
Regardless, my goal here is to not claim that either of us have ownership over Daniels. Instead, it’s important to challenge how these stories have been previously told in order to see how we can make sure people like Daniels are recognized as the heroes they are. The writing of the Sprawl article and the follow-up CBC article does that and brings his case to wider audiences - which I think is a goal that Alan would support.
History Is Not Dead
The important thing to acknowledge is that history is still a predominately white field. Some progress has been made - for example, there is now some gender diversity. However, this does not fully address the problem. As Dr. Malinda Smith notes, diversity is often meant as “diversifying whiteness.” This means that the academy, history, and archives continue to have the same barriers that John Hope Franklin encountered decades ago.
We should also acknowledge that those doing the important historical work - and the critical advocacy that follows - are not historians. For example, Cheryl Foggo, a noted Black Albertan, is a writer and filmmaker. Dr. Malinda Smith, who writes considerably on diversity and the academy, is a Political Science Professor. And Dr. Jennifer Kelly, who has done important work on Black-Canadian history, is an Education professor.
In addition, important history is often held by community members who have strong personal connections to those stories. People such as Junetta Jamerson, Debbie Beaver, and Peggy Brown. It’s important that this is understood so that we understand that history is not dead.
Those who experienced our provinces Black history - the discrimination and resistance - are still alive along with their relatives often being subject to the legacy of that discrimination. For example, in 1938, a Black woman - Miss Utendale (first name unknown) - was refused entry to nursing training at the Royal Alexander Hospital because she was Black.
To see the legacy of this decision all you need to do is look at the graduation photos of nursing students from the University of Alberta. You don’t see a single Black face for decades. This is simply one example but illustrates how the historic work we do has real and considerable impacts on people and that the communities effected are still very much alive.
Unfortunately, this is often ignored by archivists, historians, and academics. In fact, in most of the cases I’ve read, the Black person’s experience is often ignored. For example, I could find no photo of Charles Daniels or any detailed information about his life. While in contrast, the people who refused him entry have their photos shown along with biographies describing their lives.
Another example is Lulu Anderson, a Black woman that was refused entry in the Metropolitan Theatre in 1922 Edmonton. She is not quoted anywhere in the news articles about the case and the judge that ruled against her has a statue located near the River Valley. In addition, her court case was destroyed in 1971 by a policy that did not find her case historically important.
One final example is Ted King. He was a Black Calgarian that sued a motel for segregation in 1959. An extensive academic article was actually written about his case in 2017 but no photo of Ted was included. In fact, the writer of the article only saw Ted for the first time when I sent her one from the Glenbow archives. King’s case is also interesting since his son reached out to me after I wrote a post on him. It turns out that his own son never heard of this story despite it previously being in academic journals.
In short, we - writers, historians, academics, etc - should always question if our research considers those who are living from the effects of this history. If it doesn’t then does your research really matter?
It’s a question I constantly grapple with since I have at times been at fault - telling the stories of Black Albertan’s who are still alive. This is why I constantly try to be aware of this - but it makes me wonder if white historians do the same.
This is why I hesitate calling myself a historian. It’s a title that I believe holds incredible importance and responsibility. Where historians have to carefully consider what impact the cases they uncover have. One reason for this is because history is political.
It’s political because of how historical spaces have been designed to keep Black people out. It’s also political because of how the ignorance of our history allows people in powerful positions to repeat historical narratives to justify modern discriminatory policies. This is something I recently wrote about for the National Observer.
In closing, I hope that this post helps you understand my reason for creating this blog and why I choose to write about our history. It’s a challenging task that has enormous responsibility and implications. It’s my hope that, with this work, the story of the Canada can be told adequately and fairly.
“For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely some- thing to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it and finally accept it, in order to bring myself out of it.”
- James Baldwin "The White Man's Guilt," in Ebony, August 1965