Owning the narrative of Black history can be a complex struggle. The threat of erasure always looms large, as ownership and documentation have largely been outside of Black control. That script is being re-written as two archival projects are underway to secure our history, particularly that of Black creatives.
In the annals of Black history, Baltimore, Maryland holds a high place. Both Frederick Douglas and Thurgood Marshall hailed from Baltimore. It is the birthplace of jazz great Eubie Blake and while Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Baltimore. W.E.B. DuBois called Baltimore home for over two decades and Harriet Tubman was born in Dorchester County, just 100 miles from Baltimore.
Visual artist Derrick Adams is in the process of putting Baltimore’s Black creative history on the map. Recently awarded a $1.25 million grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Adams is creating the Black Baltimore Digital Database (BBDD), to catalog records and materials related to the work of past and current Baltimore-area creatives, along with sports and science figures. His plans are for the archive to exist in both digital and physical form, with physical archives to be housed at a center in the historically Black Waverly neighborhood.
In Adams's words, the database is, “a collaborative counter-institutional space.”
Meanwhile, on the west coast, The Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles recently acquired the private collection of Lee Kaplan, a local bookseller who amassed a significant archive of published material and ephemera on Black artists, dating from the 1930s to today. The largess comes from what was started in a one-bedroom apartment on Westwood Boulevard, Arcana: Books on the Arts, and opened in 1984 by Lee Kaplan and his wife Whitney.
As institutional libraries sidelined the importance of contributions to American culture by African American and Black Diaspora artists, Arcana grew to be one of the city’s leading resources on Black visual culture. This archive is now a part of the Getty’s African American Art History initiative, which already holds the personal archives of Betye Saar, and the library of the late art and music scholar Robert Farris Thompson. These collections are added to the Getty holdings that also include the historic archives of Johnson Publishing, (Ebony and Jet Magazines), later donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
There are many deep complexities of owning the narrative of Black America. But let the spotlight shine on our growing efforts to secure, document, archive, and pass on our extensive history for generations of scholarship and learning.