Tag Archives: National Archives

Archives reveal untold stories of African American Women Religious

 

As I was deciding among the many ideas waiting to be explored during the waning days of African American history month I happened upon AOTUS (http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus), the blog posted by David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S. In his recent Black History Month post Ferreiro wrote about a number of “hidden treasures”, archives that reveal the narrative of African Americans; included on his brief list was the following

The Oblate Sisters of Providence is the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. It was the work of a French-born Sulpician priest and four women, who were part of the Caribbean refugee colony which began arriving in Baltimore in the late 18th century. The order founded the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States and is still educating children in Baltimore. A grant from the NHPRC helped the Oblate Sisters process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection of approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850s to 2003, including this touching image of orphans under their care.

A quick search revealed that the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) – which coincidentally comes under the federal authority of the Archivist — had recently awarded a grant of $25,830 to the Oblate Sisters of Providence for an Historic Photograph Project. The goal of the project was “to process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection” of the Sisters. The inventory had identified approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850’s to 2003. A bit more probing disclosed a remarkable bit of the history of African Americans and of women religious in the U.S.

Though the Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first successful order of Roman Catholic Sisters of African descent, there was an earlier community. An earlier community, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, later known as the Sisters of Loretto, formed in Kentucky in 1812 with the encouragement of a Belgian priest, Father Charles Nericnkx. When the priest died that early community dissolved.

A short time later, in 1829, Jacques Hector Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, took a similar approach to proselytizing. Born in France, Joubert worked in Haiti before the Revolution; he escaped to the U.S., specifically to Baltimore, where he became a Sulpician priest. Assigned to serve French speaking Haitian Catholics at St. Mary’s chapel he grew concerned with his young parishioners’ problems learning to read the Catechism. His thoughts turned to founding a school – while his circle expanded to include two women of African descent who were already running a small school.

The two women who evinced an interest in consecrating their lives to God were soon joined by two other young women with a similar commitment. And thus was formed the nucleus of the nation’s first religious order for Black women. Eventually, the four novices took their vows and the first order of women religious of African descent was officially founded in 1829; the superior of the community was Elizabeth Lange, a native of Cuba.  On October 2, 1831 Pope Gregory XVI blessed the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The Sisters opened a small school for Haitian children where French was the spoken language and the essential tool for learning the tenets of their Catholic faith. In time the school grew, eventually leading to the founding of The Baltimore School for Colored Girls in 1828. Renamed St. Frances Academy the school remains as the oldest continuously operating school for African American Catholic children in the United States. As the school continued to grow, the Sisters bought more property and built a new chapel.  This chapel was significant as the first chapel open to African American Catholics living in Baltimore.

Things went well until the early 1840’s when the community faced a number of problems, including the death of their original supporter, Father Joubert, in 1843. Because the primary work of the Joubert’s order, the Sulpicians, had always been the education of men, the community decided to no longer minister to the Oblates. The school languished, as did the Oblate community. The Oblates asked permission from the Bishop to beg on the streets to support their community. One of the original founders, Mother Theresa Duchemen, left the community to move to Michigan where she eventually helped found the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The times were difficult for the fledgling community. For some time, the Oblates worked at a church served by the Redemptorists where their attention shifted to serving the city’s growing German community. It was at this juncture that a second priest, Father Thaddeus Anwander, helped the community restore a degree of financial stabaility. Anwander eventually came to be known as the second founder of the Oblates.

The struggling community next came under the directorship of the Jesuits; for the first time they began missions outside of Baltimore, including missions in Philadelphia and New Orleans. Then, in 1871, the Sisters faced yet another change when the Josephite Fathers and Brothers assumed directorship. The mission of the Josephites was to administer to African American Catholics; in this era the Oblates expanded, adding additional schools and orphanages.

In the early 1900’s the Oblates, no longer under the directorship of the Josephites, grew and adjusted to changing needs. By the 1950 there were over 300 Oblate Sisters of Providence teaching and otherwise meeting the needs of African American children. They opened foreign missions, the first of which in Havana was followed by seven Cuban missions; all were closed in the early 1960’s with the regime of Fidel Castro.

Today the approximately 80 Oblate Sisters continue to operate their southwest Baltimore motherhouse known as Our Lady of Mount Providence. The site has housed several missions over the years including Mt. Providence Junior College (1963-1966), administrative offices, and the archives of the community. Today the Oblates serve missions in Baltimore, Miami, Buffalo, NY as well as cities in Costa Rica.

For much more information, including the photographic archives, visit the Archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence Library, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore, MD 21227, 401-242 8500, osparchives@oblatesisters.com. https://www.facebook.com/Oblate.Sisters.of.Providence/photos_stream

 

 

Exploring the Legacy of MLK in the Digital Age

Long ago I learned from my friend Marvin Roger Anderson that commemoration of the MLK birthday holiday should involve community building, connecting with friends and neighbors to share celebrate the dream.  He insisted that public libraries should throw open their doors to serve as gathering sites. MLK’s birthday, he reminded us, is the only holiday that’s not about family or gifts or escape but an occasion to experience, share and build community committed to MLK’s dream.

Those who have the day off and no home obligations might well heed Marvin’s wise counsel. There are mega-gatherings today at the Convention Center, the Minnesota History Center, the Cathedral as well as less formal events in neighborhoods, places of worship, colleges and public places.   For the homebound our community engagement can be a virtual learning adventure.

Public media do a good job of sharing their audio and video rich resources – in yesterday’s post I mentioned one of many.

Less well known are the vast digital resources to which digital age armchair learners enjoy unprecedented access.  Many of these resources are collected, preserved, digitized and shared by agencies of the federal government, the most prominent of which is the Library of Congress.  LC is digitizizing humungous collections of documents, photos, recordings, diaries, artifacts, virtually anything that helps to tell the story of this nation.  Further, the Library produces online guides to resources of a host of other collections within and outside the federal bureaucracy.

MLK Day provides a great opportunity for a digital dip into the treasures of LC.  The problem is that to dip may be to drown.  A significant problem in using digital resources is that the tidal wave is too much and the searcher washes ashore.

One approach is to start with a guide that LC created in 2010 to complement The African-American Mosaic exhibit.  Click here: (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam001.html) .  When you search under “Martin Luther King” the guide will send you to two sites:

Your learning curve has just begun.  Within LC lie countless caches of digitized history including, for example, the American Folklife Center (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/aboutafc.html) as well as the Afro-American Genealogical Research collection, the National Women’s History Project, the records of the NAACP, and the National Museum for African American History and Culture (http://nmaahc.si.edu)  still a work-in-progress set to open next year

The guide will lead you beyond the walls of the Library of Congress (not that walls matter to the armchair searcher).  The National Archives and Records Administration (http://archives.gov) is the repository of the records of the government itself.   “Celebrating MLK’s Legacy and Birthday” offers a quick glimpse of the National Archives resources on the King era – a smidgeon with links (http://blogs.archives.gov/blackhistoryblog/)

Armchair searching of the photos, videos, artifacts, posters, diaries, pamphlets – the stories — is a healthy addiction.  For some, the story of the process itself is as important as the stories that emerge from the records.  Such digital enthusiasts will enjoy this YouTube intro to digitization: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkzWN9t1alk)

With African American History Month just weeks away venturing into the MLK stories may whet the appetite for more – including, perchance, another post.  In the meantime, this just popped up on Twitter – take a minute to click, read and listen:

http://www.npr.org/2014/01/20/264226759/a-promise-unfulfilled-1962-mlk-speech-recording-is-discovered?ft=1&f=1001&utm_content=socialflow&utm_campaign=nprnews&utm_source=npr&utm_medium=twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOIA is there when you really need access

Have you or anyone you know ever submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA – pronounced “foy-ya”) request? Have you wondered what the journalists mean when the report with pride that they pried some tidbit of information out of the federal government by exercising their FOIA rights.

Well known to investigative journalists, attorneys of some persuasion and citizens who know and exercise their information rights, FOIA is the bulwark of the tools at the ready for any individual or organization that wants to know more by and about the federal government.

FOIA affirms with certainty that the burden is on the government, not the public, to justify the reason for any information to be withheld from the public; the underlying assumption of FOIA is a presumption of openness. The law, enforceable in federal court, requires that agencies of the government must disclose information unless that information is specifically withheld from disclosure under one of nine very specific exemptions to the law.

The problem is that interest in probing the power and procedures of FOIA is an acquired taste.  Though prime users of the tool are most often well compensated for their time mere citizens should reflect that the payoff for a FOIA quest is the potential of reliable information to solve a problem whether the issue at hand is an individual’s right to citizenship or an inventor’s patent or the location of a hazardous waste site in the community.

In real life, FOIA is the tool of last resort.  The vast network of government distribution systems, including individual agencies and depository libraries supported by public, academic and institutional libraries, meet most users’ needs Federal agency websites and other distribution systems, answer the majority of queries that individuals will ever encounter.

Recently word has come of a tool that promises to be a boon to information seekers floundering in the depths of the Capital information pool.  The National Archives has just produced  an online directory of the records managers in each federal agency whose responsibility it is to respond to requests for information by or about the agency.  The guide lists the name, email and phone number of a specific person, along with a date that the information was collected.  It’s organized alphabetically by agency with sub-agencies aggregated under the executive, legislative or jjudicial super-agency or independent agency.

Though I have not had a chance to use the guide, I trust that it works.  Even more, it bolsters my hope that the federal agencies, in particular National Archives, is taking seriously the commitment to open government.

FOIA sets out the principle of openness.  As a tool, it’s like using a bazooka to kill a fly.  FOIA is for the stuff that’s elusive, shared with greater reluctance on the part of the producing agency, or so specific you need to talk to an experienced pro who knows the agency and can match query with appropriate response.  FOIA is the sort of tool you reach for when all else fails – like a plumbing wrench or a kitchen tool used infrequently but absolutely essential when the occasion arises.

If information is power and if a democracy depends on an informed public, FOIA provides the solid base for the public and those who serve the public to create an open government and an informed public.  The ongoing challenge is to assure that 1) the law is monitored and enforced, and 2) that ubiquitous information and communication technology facilitates rather than impedes the free flow of information by and about the federal government.