Found  /  Discovery

Black Archives Look to Preservation Amid Growing US History Bans

Matter-of-fact accounting of the legal mechanism of slavery provides insight into American history and the country’s fraught present.

At a time when many schools across the country grapple with teaching truthful American history in light of these restrictions, the preservation of precious archival documents like the ones the TikTokers tampered with at Howard—which can provide a vital lens through which to understand the past and its implications for the present and future—could be more necessary than ever.

A way to ‘incorporate silenced narratives’

In November, a Georgia probate judge, Kenya Johnson, discovered documents in the court’s records room that dated back to the 1840s. Johnson and her staff read through the documents, which included estate planning papers, marriage licenses and wills indicating how enslavers planned to pass down the people they owned as property.

During an interview with Atlanta’s WSBTV, Johnson read aloud from one of the wills: “I bequeath to my daughter Margaret Rebecca my Negro woman Gin. Of dark complexion and all of her children to her and her heirs forever.” The documents, in which lives and futures of enslaved people are written about on lists that include cattle and china, underscore the banality of the institution of slavery.

Scholars say the records could be useful in a manner additive to education – to inform the discussions about reparations. “Some of these records that were found I’m sure could play a crucial role in efforts towards reparations and addressing systemic racial disparities,” Nafeesa Muhammad, a professor of history at Spelman College, said. “Historians and other scholars are going to take advantage of this, especially with respect to Georgia history.”

In 2021, Fulton county, where Johnson is a judge, established a reparations taskforce, the first such one in the country at the county level. Recently the taskforce released a report to serve as the start of studies leading to reparations for the descendants of people who endured enslavement and people who lived through Jim Crow segregation. Documents such as the ones found in the Georgia court’s records room can help people further understand slavery and its legacy.