Archival visits have always been challenging for me, even when I’m there for my own projects. They require you to be strategic, organized, and diligent; and oftentimes, because you are visiting from plane and/or train rides away, getting in, getting your information and getting out in a timely fashion is imperative. It requires a lot more work in advance than a new researcher might anticipate, from scouring the archive’s database to see what it has (and doesn’t have), to emailing/calling the archivist to schedule a visit. It is maddening to have to know exactly (or even vaguely) what you are looking for in advance when you may just want to casually take a look. It can also be daunting when you know exactly what you have to look for, but the search becomes like finding a needle in haystack.
This is exactly what I was doing most of the second half of May and into June– except I was looking for needles that I knew were everywhere and yet still artfully obscured. My assistantship tasked me to look through the York County Records Project (as one of many potential sources) to see if I could find out if any of the faculty, Board of Visitors members and Bursar’s office officials of my institution owned enslaved people.
While my first reaction might have been, “It was pre-Civil War Virginia. These guys were essentially the aristocracy. They owned enslaved people,” I did understand the necessity of discerning for certain who among them owned enslaved folks. With a memorial to the enslaved coming to our campus, it will be powerful to add the names of the enslaved as we find them.
I felt I was doing important work, but always left each day feeling mentally drained, physically uncomfortable, and spiritually depleted.
There were the academic reasons: I don’t do a ton of physical archival work. When I do, it usually isn’t Historical work, with a capital H. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do the work the way it needed to be done. I didn’t know the words or phrases of the day to look for which would indicate the presence of a Black body that weren’t explicit. I didn’t know the most effective way to break into an archive. I’m not a Historian. Capital H.
There were the physical reasons: I sat in a stiff chair for intervals of five hours a session, bent over box after box of half sheets of paper, thankfully type written and not by hand. I had to handle each sheet of paper individually, read what was on the sheet, put it back and go in for another. I was often alone, save for the archivist who worked with me on the project. I got up only to exchange one box for another. By the time I left for the day, I thought I’d never get the smell of old papers off of my hands and the daily tension knot out of my neck.
There were the mental reasons: My brain, at the point when I began this research project, was shot. I had just finished my comprehensive exams and week long intensive writing retreat when I began this project. Then, in the middle of this research project, I had to go to Canada for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI)– and then come right back to researching. I had stretched myself so thin that by the time I got home, around 4:30, I would immediately fall into bed, trying to recover from the day’s work before I had to do it again.
Then there were the emotional reasons: It was an ordeal to even get inside the library to do my research. Despite being a public library, one has to ring a doorbell and have someone let you in. One day in particular, the volunteer who opened the door stood in my way and wouldn’t move until I told him what I was there for. Once he had deemed it was appropriate for me to access this “hallowed” space, I quickly went inside and buried myself in work, trying not to think too hard about the look he gave me when I said I was a researcher.
Once I managed to get inside the archive, after passing through the cold foyer under the watchful eye of the circulation librarians, there were the boxes. Inside were hundreds and hundreds of records belonging to people from in and around York County from as early as the 17th century and as late as the 19th. To reiterate, my task was to investigate the records of the dead white men who had run my current institution to see if I could determine who owned enslaved people. It was demoralizing to have to look under the names of white men, who had last names and titles, and hunt to find any trace of (often unnamed) Black bodies. I knew how slavery operated, and yet my stomach still found new and inventive ways to rise into my throat whenever I found a name– usually listed as a runaway, described as if this human was no different than a “strayed horse.” I understood in theory and yet it still broke my heart to see enslaved people counted in deeds and wills, packaged as property. There are no words for the feeling one gets after finding the names of 86 enslaved people, while also taking in with horror that one person could own 86 people.
I wanted to find their names– their names were so important to me, because they deserved to be remembered by their name and not as “Negro, aged approximately 36 years.” But at the same time, I never wanted to find a name because then I could imagine, that perhaps, this particular white person had not owned a single slave. If I found a Black person’s name in the records, they were often enslaved. I found myself rooting for the runaways, and still feeling indignant that this was even a world in which they had to runaway. I found myself wondering who had given the enslaved people their names, because a part of me didn’t want to call them by a name the white slaveholder had given them and yet they so deserved to be named.
The physical distress was nothing compared to the emotional and spiritual anguish of this labor. It made me question how Historians, particularly Black Historians, study slavery and Jim Crow, and how they care for themselves while doing so. I did this for 40 hours– this project was by no means the foundation of my career. Some people do this for a lifetime.
There is nothing more confusing than sitting in a cold, sterile, environment that some might call neutral and wanting to cry over “nothing” but reading a sheet of paper.
This research experience was by far one of the most complicated experiences of my life. In that archive, I felt a range of emotions and sensations, but none of them were safety. When I managed to extricate myself from the stories I was having to piece together via runaway slave ads and wills, I remembered that I was in a space where it was assumed I did not belong.
I left the archive on the last day feeling a sense of relief wash over my body. I exchanged pleasant words with the archivist who had worked with me (she was truly wonderful), and I remember wishing, regretfully, that one person being nice was enough to cancel out the general feeling that I was unwelcome.
I have carried this experience in the pit of my stomach ever since, waiting for the right moment to get it all down and share it. I wanted to make sure I had the time to do it justice, because it seemed impossible to untangle the mess I had been feeling for weeks. There were so many different feelings and threads to follow, and almost all of them hurt.
I now know for certain what I have always known in theory: our institutions, including libraries and archives, are not neutral. I share this story because I wanted to be brave enough to feel it all, to process how it feels to peer between the lines and find that which was hidden in plain sight.