Today at Moorland-Spingarn (July 25, 2019)

It’s been almost two months since my last blog post. Not that there hasn’t been anything of interest to write about; there has been plenty. But we have been slogging through that stage of collection processing that does not lend itself to publicity, to public airing of the process, because of the possibility of harming the final product. Nonetheless, we are coming to a turning point in the long term project, and now we can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially for the two main portions, correspondence and writings. So despite the constant labor and effort required to push this project to its turning point, I am going to pause today, get a gulp of fresh air, and survey our progress.

We have an undergraduate worker helping out, a promising young scholar with youthful ideas and drive. It makes a big difference. We started him on photographs and graduated him to correspondence. Meanwhile, I continue to plow through the boxes of documents making the first pass for sorting, preservation, and identification.

We met today with a team of scientists on campus doing related work, not with documents from the collection, but with related artifacts, in this case, bones of cadavers that comprised the collection of the noted anthropologist, anatomist, educator and physician whose papers we are processing. Here is a link from this morning Channel 9 news spot covering the work these scientists are conducting: Cobb Research Center in the news. The Cobb Research Center, expertly led by anthropologist Dr. Fatimah Jackson, has also recently published a bio piece on the subject of our collection, mentioned in an earlier post, Dr. William Montague Cobb. We plan to maintain this collaboration and make it richer and stronger.

We also plan to reach out to other parts of the University community as we get closer to completion, to making the collection fully discoverable and researchable, with the aim of giving Howard departments first dibs on perusing the vast wealth of historical information in this significant collection.

Following the rules of MPLP (more product, less process), we have decided to divide the correspondence into only three broad categories: Cobb’s work with the National Medical Association (NMA) and its DC chapter; Cobb’s civil rights and medical work with the NAACP; and everything else. The correspondence, ultimately, will be alphabetized by individual name and in some cases when prominent enough, subject or event name.

The writings are a different subject, and right now we are focusing exclusively of items written by Cobb himself, manuscripts, articles, book reviews, speeches he gave, and conference presentations. One estimate has the number at over 11,000 items. We will be streamlining that somewhat. Conferences and delegations of significance with have to make up its own category. These will be included with the collection. All the strictly NMA organizational stuff, journals, bound volumes and article reprints outside correspondence we will index, but they will be stored apart from the processed collection. We still haven’t decided what to do with what we call routine “engagements,” the many events to which Cobb was invited as an official representative and in which he took part, but I suspect they will also be indexed and stored in a remote location. There will be several boxes of “ephemera,” transactional stuff like receipts, event programs, obits, news clippings, etc., that will definitely remain with the collection.

I am anticipating completion of all correspondence, writings, photographs, and ephemera by the end of February, my one year anniversary with Moorland-Spingarn. Not too shabby a timeline when you consider this collection has been with us for decades. Decades. I met a guy today who had my job well over twenty years ago. He told me he remembered going to Dr. Cobb’s house to remove the boxes of documents and relocate them to Moorland Spingarn. That’s way too long a gap between receipt of a collection and final processing.

As an aside, I met a very distinguished lady today to whom we refer scholars who are researching her father’s papers, a long time Howard history professor. I mentioned to her that we would love to have her father’s collection in the archive. She countered that we don’t have a great reputation for processing papers in an expeditious fashion. After going through the normal spiel about funding and staffing, we gave each other that look that admits our respective faults, mostly the institution’s failures. I wish I had enough time to correct all of these organizational flaws, but my time is short and I promised my wife I would only work five years come hell or high water. That is the sadness of the job for me. It is ultimately Greek tragedy, though nonetheless, very fine drama. A sadness that is frequently counterbalanced by the joy of discovery and the immense potential for outreach and increased accessibility. That said, I intend to give it my level best effort during my tenure here.

Howard University’s history is marked by housing successive assemblages of intellectual giants (the Howard School of IR Theory espoused and developed by a group of Howard professors early in the 20th century is another brilliant example) whose academic work charted the course not only of the black diaspora in America but of American progress in general and of African leadership development worldwide. We have to be better at both preserving the documentary evidence of that magnificent contribution to the world at large, and of enabling the telling of that story through access, discovery, and preservation of that evidence. It’s a big job. A really big job.