Sabbatical Research Log, Days 7-14ish: I Don’t Have the Range

Annie Marie Cox, AB 1910. Student yearbook vol. 13, 1909-1910

As I’ve progressed on this project, I’m wrestling with a couple of things.

First, as context (and just in general) I recommend that you read Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s excellent recent article in Library Trends “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library.” It has me shook, in a good way (and, again, you should read it – and the other articles in the issue, they’re all great). Got me thinking a lot about whiteness, its relationship to femininity, the patriarchy, and how all that manifests in LIS – all things that are deeply resonant in general, and definitely related to this project. Second, and related – I’m feeling a bit unmoored on this project.

Robertann Barbee Cuthbert, AB 1911. Student yearbook vol. 15, 1910-1911.

Some of the “why” about my unmoored-ness might be obvious given the context – I’m a white woman researching and writing about Black women at the University of Denver (DU). I started this project with a main co-author/co-lead (Dr. Nicole Joseph) who, at the time, co-led a group of graduate women at DU (the Sistah Network) who identify as Black . Our goal was, ultimately, to mount an exhibit to coincide with the university’s 150th anniversary, celebrating the history of early Black women alumnae. Due to time and resource constraints, we weren’t able to complete the project at the time, but it was an example of the kind of work that both Dr. Joseph and I felt that our archives needed to be doing – and that, to be frank, we didn’t do, for a lot of reasons that are too obvious and mundane to go into – as a part of the celebration of the University’s sesquicentennial.

Kate White Harris, AB 1912. Student yearbook vol. 16, 1911-1912.

Fast forward to 2017 (DU’s 150th was in 2014), and my sabbatical proposal, which I made about this project, was accepted. I’m now deep into the throes of original biographical research. As a related aside, it’s a good thing I put aside the whole of a summer to work on this because doing original biographical research, especially on women, and especially on African-American women, is NO JOKE. First, ladies get married – they change their names, sometimes multiple times. Aside from all the usual transcription and other errors with census and other readily accessible public records, you also have to contend with all of the issues with how census enumerators dealt with race and ethnicity. For just a glimpse into this, read Christine Hickman’s “The Devil and the One-Drop Rule” which is not only a foundational text of critical legal studies, it includes, in a footnote, an example from her own family which I found particularly illuminating: “In reviewing the 19th century census records for my own family, I noted that a “W” had been crossed out and replaced with an “M,” suggesting that my great, great grandparent may have gently corrected the mistaken impression of the [enumerator].”

It is this footnote that, I think, gets at the crux of my concern. The goal in this project is deceptively simple: document early African-American women alums at the University of Denver. However, the records that we have at our disposal – or at least those that we’ve been able to identify – have the same, and in some cases, even more issues than those noted in Christine Hickman’s article. The University (and my guess is, most universities) did not retain race or ethnicity data on admitted students until fairly recently (2001-on). So, in 2014, we decided that the place to at least begin to identify students was one of the few places where we did have at least some data – yearbooks. There are numerous flaws in this method. First, not all students appear in the yearbooks, even by name, and definitely not all students are pictured. Second, even if a particular African-American woman happened to appear in an image in the yearbook, we’re using visual cues to identify students as either “African-American” or “not African-American.” (again, see the Hickman article for a far more detailed explanation of the legal implications of hypodescent, i.e. “the one-drop rule”). We added in a second “check” to this process – each potentially African-American woman, once identified, would be cross-referenced in these super-problematic historical records that denoted race/ethnicity. So – we could take one of two routes: either, we could circle back and look at another set of records – say, commencement programs or even student transcripts – and take each name in each commencement program or transcript and cross-reference those names against the census – or, we could take a shortcut. We could use yearbook pictures to In order to identify some early African-American graduates, and cross-reference our visual analysis with census records.

The issue(s), I hope, are obvious. These women, all of whom graduated prior to 1940 (1960 if I have additional time), are now deceased. We can’t ask them how they self-identify.  The University of Denver is now, and has been since its founding, a predominantly white institution (PWI), and the number of African-American graduates, let alone African-American women graduates, is statistically very low relative to other race/ethnicity categories. In addition, I only have 10 weeks to not only identify women, but do a significant amount of additional biographical research on them. In additionally addition, though the first round of identification was done by a generous group of women from the Sistah Network, the remainder of this ID’ing and cross-referencing is being done by me.

I’m left wondering: how much of Lady Bountiful is at work in this project? Do I have the range? How can I circle back around to ensure that this project serves the community it was initially intended to serve, now that my co-lead has moved on to literally greener pastures at Vanderbilt? I think I have the beginnings of answers to these questions, but they seem like important ones to keep circling back to as I’m doing this work. I’m sure there are questions I’m not considering. But, as Dr. Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” So I’m going to keep trying to do better.

Sabbatical Research Log – Days 1-?

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Grace Mabel (Mabelle) Andrews from the Kynewisbok, the University of Denver yearbook (vol. 11), representing academic year 1907-1908.

As some of the folks who know me IRL (in real life) know, I’m currently on a research sabbatical to continue a project that I began in partnership with then-University of Denver (DU) Assistant Prof in Curriculum & Instruction, Dr. Nicole Joseph. One aspect of her research focuses on using primary sources to surface the histories of Black women in STEM education, particularly at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). As a Black woman teaching at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), she is also interested in the retention of Black women scholars, and has focused some of her service efforts on bringing together Black women in the academy. My research interests focus on centering the experiences of marginalized communities on historically white campuses in the historical record, and specifically in this case, surfacing the histories of individual students, faculty, and staff who identify as part of one or more of these communities. As an undergraduate in history, I was entranced by Gerda Lerner and Merry Wiesner’s feminist analysis of history, bringing in primary source analysis and individual women’s voices and stories – and I wanted to do some of that work myself.

As we’ve written about in several co-authored articles and chapters, our interests literally dovetailed during the 150th anniversary of the University of Denver in 2014, when Dr. Joseph reached out to me to ask if we could collaborate on an exhibit to highlight early African-American alumnae. We very quickly realized that there was little to no information on these women readily available and visible in the archives, so we got to work. The Sistah Network, the group for Black women in graduate programs at DU co-run by Dr. Joseph, began digging through yearbooks and student newspapers, in search of these early students. We quickly realized that there was no good way to determine who might have self-identified as Black women during the early years of the University. We landed on an imperfect initial method of cross-referencing women who, based on halftone photomechanical prints in early 1900s yearbooks, may not have identified as white, with census records that listed race and ethnicity as prescribed by that particular decennial census. Due to time restrictions, we were unable to identify these women in a sufficient amount of time to get an exhibit up during the 150th, but by this point, I could see how much work needed to be done, and I was committed – thus the sabbatical proposal.

Fast forward to 2017, and restarting this process, using this methodology, is still something I am deeply uncomfortable with, as it doesn’t allow the women to speak for themselves with any real certainty about how they identified. As Christine Hickman writes in “The Devil and the One-Drop Rule,” her detailed examination of the legal and cultural implications of hypodescent in America (i.e. the “one-drop rule”), “unlike in the modern census, the classifications were ascertained by the enumerator, they were not self-ascribed.” (1185). She follows this up with a personal example in a footnote on the same page: “In reviewing the 19th century census records for my own family, I noted that a “W” [for “White”] had been crossed out and replaced with an “M,” [for “Mulatto”] suggesting that my great, great grandparent may have gently corrected the mistaken impression of the ‘beardless boy.'” That said, we have no other records (that I’m aware of, if they’re out there, I’m all ears) that would allow for cross-referencing names of known students with self-identified race/ethnicity. So – I’m going to keep plugging along.

More as research progresses.