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Bronzeville historian praises $2M donation to largest Black history archives in Midwest

Bronzeville historian Sherry Williams is praising a historic $2 million donation that will help residents gain more access to the largest Black history archives in the Midwest.

At the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library branch at 95th and Halsted, city leaders shared that the Mellon Foundation recently announced a donation that will give more access to the Vivian Harsh Research Collection, an extensive collection of documents, manuscripts, photographs and books on individuals, events and places in Black history. The collection covers a wide selection of categories, including business, education, genealogy, history, literature, journalism, religion and slavery.

Some residents have complained about the collection not being readily available to use. Library users can only access the collection by making an appointment by emailing Harsh Collection officials who have two days to respond to requests.

“I applaud any effort to create open-source access to the Woodson Library holdings,” said Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, which holds weekly classes to help residents research their biological lineage.

“This grant could change how Chicago Public Library users engage with the library, and should illuminate the countless Chicagoans who deposited their photos, documents, funeral bulletins, and newspapers into the Vivian G. Harsh Collection.”

Patricia Hswe, program officer for Public Knowledge at the Mellon Foundation said, “The narrative power of primary sources held in special collections and archives that are relevant to Ethnic Studies have become more critical to advocate for in the last several years. We are pleased to support CPL in this objective, as it casts a well-deserved spotlight on Black Studies through the library’s multivocal collections and increases the scale of user access to them.”

The grant will also help librarians digitize and process critical documents related to Black history from slavery in the 1800s to Jim Crow to modern day America.

The largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest contains over 75,000 books, many of them rare, 15,000 reels of microfilm, over 4,000 clipping files, and 175 manuscripts and archival collections.

While the Collection includes materials on African Americans throughout the Diaspora, the primary focus is on African American History in Chicago and Illinois. The completed finding aides include the Abbott/Sengstacke Family Papers, Barbara E. Allen Papers, Timuel D. Black, Jr. Papers, Etta Moten Barnett Papers, Earl B. Dickerson Papers, Francis Minor Papers and the Chicago SNCC History Project Archives, and many other documents.

“The Renaissance Project offers a significant opportunity to contribute to the city’s priorities around equity,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “I applaud Chicago Public Library and Commissioner Chris Brown for building on our long tradition of championing diverse narratives, uplifting marginalized voices and engaging the city in educational and cultural development, underscoring a powerful opportunity to contribute to racial healing in Chicago.”

Linda Johnson Rice, whose father John H. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company that produced Ebony and Jet magazines, is president of the Chicago Public Library Board of Directors. Two more Blacks are on the Board.

The Crusader was unable to reach those individuals to comment on the $2 million donation, but Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brown said, “Our African American stories and histories are our country’s story. If these stories are not accessible, generations miss the chance to connect with who we are as a country. Mellon’s grant will do just that, connecting generations and international audiences with African American histories.”

Stacie Williams, CPL Division Chief of Archives and Special Collections, said, “CPL will continue to honor Harsh’s work by fostering greater access to Black-history-related collections for everyone.”

CPL officials said as part of this multi-year initiative, CPL will also partner with educators connected to the Illinois State Board of Education’s Inclusive American History Commission (IAHC) to create new open-source curricula and tools that inform teaching of Black history in public secondary and post-secondary schools.

“As Illinois moves toward more inquiry-based, inclusive, and just learning experiences for students in K-12 and college classrooms, this grant is creating opportunities for teachers to better access curricular resources and pedagogical insights supporting that aspiration,” said Asif Wilson, Ph.D., assistant professor, Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As co-investigator, Wilson will chair an advisory group of educators who will make recommendations on how the materials can be used in curriculum and assignments.

CPL’s namesake collection is named after Vivian G. Harsh, a historian who nurtured, collected, and disseminated African American history and literature on the South Side of Chicago at a time when few others did.

Harsh was born in Chicago to a family described as “blueblood” by the Chicago Defender in its obituary for Harsh. Her mother was one of the first female graduates of the historically Black Fisk University in Tennessee. Harsh’s father owned a saloon.

Harsh attended Bronzeville’s Wendell Phillips High School and began working for the CPL as a junior clerk in 1909. After receiving a degree in Library Science and climbing the ranks of CPL, she was appointed the head of the new George Cleveland Hall Branch in 1932.

Harsh and Charlemae Rollins, a children’s librarian, developed the branch’s substantial African American resources and programming specifically for the Black community. The collection began with over 100 books on African Americans donated by George Bentley, founder of the Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Operating in the 1920s without funding from the Chicago Public Library, Harsh expanded the collection through private donations and her personal contributions. The library itself became a mecca for literary and cultural icons of the period, including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks, some of whom contributed manuscripts to the institution.

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