Archiving: A Detective’s Work

By Maryam Tahseen

I remember delving into archiving in my second week of research with no idea as to what I would find. Just like any detective, I decided to understand the background of my case before I investigated further into the details. I started my investigation by going through Collegian articles from 1914 to 1975. As I went through newspaper articles from the Collegian, I started identifying the various themes that existed during different timeframes. I found out that 1950s was a time of immense support for the Confederate cause while 1960s revolved around discussions of integration of the university. As I moved into the 1970s, I realized that it was a decade of changes and activism.

Once I had identified these themes, I decided to go through the university yearbooks to find the events and activities on campus that fit within those themes. I saw illustrations of the Confederate spider on the cover of yearbooks in the late 1950s and early 1960s; I also found pictures of the first black students allowed in the night and evening courses of University College campus during the 1960s.

In order to get the administrations’ view of the events and protests on campus, I decided to go through the presidents’ reports and analyze their side of the story. By this time, I was significantly aware of the events happening around campus. Therefore, as I dug deeper into the reports, I was shocked to see how “sugar-coated” these reports were. I was surprised when the university called the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a time of “changes through peaceful demonstrations and dialogues” when actually there were student marches against the banning of the confederate song “Dixie”, racist articles and illustration in the Collegian against integration, and student protests to allow the drinking of alcohol on campus. Therefore, I assumed my role of an activist archivist in order to protect the authenticity and context of the material I found. I started connecting the dots by reading the presidents’ reports and Collegian articles side by side and eventually put many of the presidents’ reports in context through metadata entries. I was determined to ensure the authenticity of my metadata entries. Hence, when the president’s report said, for example, that the university band continued to perform magnificently at the university athletic games, I made sure that I mentioned student concerns against the band for playing the song “Dixie.”

Another issue that I encountered during my research was not having enough background information about the Collegian student contributors. Even when I wanted to take an intersectional lens, I did not have enough information. For example, I read a very interesting article in the Collegian called “Bigotry from A Minority.” It was a reaction by two students to an earlier post by a member of the Richmond College Student Government Association, Mr. Williams, against the playing of “Dixie” at university events. From the content of the article, it was very hard for me to figure out whether Mr. Williams was a black student or not. Information about the race of the student would have made it easier for me to highlight the inherent racism present on campus during the early 1970’s after integration.

Growing up, I was a huge fan of detective movies. I was always amazed at how detectives could find so much information about a crime investigation just by paying attention to the background of the photographs they found. I had a similar experience as I explored hundreds of pictures in the university yearbooks. I had to read against the grain to find pictures of unnamed black men performing and playing instruments in the background at university parties. As I investigated the yearbooks, I also found a picture of a black female cleaning the tables of a university cafeteria for faculty. Had I not learnt that there was more to these pictures than meets the eye, I would have never paid attention to these unnamed people in the background and their contributions to the university would never be recognized.

During my research, I saw pictures of black students at the university college campus, but no signs of integration on our main campus. It was not immediately obvious to me why that was the case. However, by understanding critical race theory which recognizes that racism is present in every fabric of the American society, I realized that the integration of university college was a strategy to appease the Baptist Association while also keeping the university alumni happy. This strategy spoke volumes to me about how racist our university administration was at that time.

Just like detective work, there are facets and lives of many people that are still left to be uncovered through this research. However, the work I have done has helped me realize how enriching and enjoyable this experience has been for me.

Maryam Tahseen is a rising Junior majoring in Accounting with a concentration in Finance and minoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is from Islamabad, Pakistan. As an international student, she is very excited to uncover the lives of international students along with underrepresented minorities through this project. 

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