In late December, a group of people recorded themselves breaking into Howard University’s Benjamin E Mays Hall, which holds some of the school’s archives. The video, posted on to TikTok, shows them rummaging through the building’s archives, handling books that date back to the 1800s and marveling at their access to the library.

Howard released a statement condemning the break-in, promising to increase existing patrols of the site and to reassess and secure the archives. But the group’s actions have shed a light on the precarious nature in which some archives that contain irreplaceable documents of Black American history are stored and preserved.

At a time when many schools across the country are grappling with restrictions on the teaching of critical race theory which hinder the teaching of truthful American history (18 states currently ban the academic and legal framework that notes that systemic racism is a feature of American society), the preservation of precious archival documents such as the ones the TikTokers tampered with at Howard – which can provide a vital lens through which to understand the past and its implications for the present and future – could be more necessary than ever.

A way to ‘incorporate silenced narratives’

In November, a Georgia probate judge, Kenya Johnson, discovered documents in the court’s records room that dated back to the 1840s. Johnson and her staff read through the documents, which included estate planning papers, marriage licenses and wills indicating how enslavers planned to pass down the people they owned as property.

During an interview with Atlanta’s WSBTV, Johnson read aloud from one of the wills: “I bequeath to my daughter Margaret Rebecca my Negro woman Gin. Of dark complexion and all of her children to her and her heirs forever.” The documents, in which lives and futures of enslaved people are written about on lists that include cattle and china, underscore the banality of the institution of slavery.

Scholars say the records could be useful in a manner additive to education – to inform the discussions about reparations. “Some of these records that were found I’m sure could play a crucial role in efforts towards reparations and addressing systemic racial disparities,” Nafeesa Muhammad, a professor of history at Spelman College, said. “Historians and other scholars are going to take advantage of this, especially with respect to Georgia history.”

In 2021, Fulton county, where Johnson is a judge, established a reparations taskforce, the first such one in the country at the county level. Recently the taskforce released a report to serve as the start of studies leading to reparations for the descendants of people who endured enslavement and people who lived through Jim Crow segregation. Documents such as the ones found in the Georgia court’s records room can help people further understand slavery and its legacy.

The wills and other papers can also provide insights into the experiences of the enslaved people themselves. Muhammad spoke about the lives of enslaved women, for instance, who did not have total control over their bodies or their families. “There’s a dichotomy that says that Black women, although they could’ve been considered the most powerful because they were the glue that held the enslaved communities together, they also are seen as the least powerful because their bodies and their children did not belong to them,” she said.

Other documents from the Fulton county records room show that the horrors enslaved people faced continued even after their enslavers had died. One enslaver indicated in his will that he wanted the 30 people he enslaved to be paid $100 each to go to Liberia. “When they start to Liberia, in the event I die, before they start to Liberia, 100 dollars each,” Johnson read from the document.

The enslaver’s decision to send the people he owned as property to Liberia, then a nascent country to which they likely had no connections, was a common sentiment of members of the American Colonization Society – a racist 1830s movement by abolitionists and enslavers that aimed to rid the US of free Blacks, whom they blamed for slave revolts and insurrections, and whom they refused to allow to fully integrate into white society.

Morgan Robinson, a graduate student at Penn State University who researched the society, said: “They’re ultimately working towards a goal of removing Black people from their spaces … It was a way for them to get rid of a problem they felt they had.” Roughly 16,000 Black Americans ultimately immigrated to Liberia during the 19th century.

“There are people on the other side of this who were in the places where these settlements were being created who had to deal with people who are being forced or choosing to come over and settle land that they have no idea about,” Robinson said. “There are so many consequences that come out of that as well that are not being taken into consideration.”

Muhammad, the Spelman professor, also believes the documents can be a wellspring of knowledge for descendants of American slavery, who can use the wills to help trace their ancestry and determine what happened to certain ancestors. “It could foster empathy,” she said. “It could add to the current discussion around critical race theory and how we incorporate some of those silenced narratives even in America’s education system.”

Johnson, the Georgia judge, said in the WSBTV interview that she hopes to partner with a museum or archival organization to restore the records. She also invited the public to make an appointment to view the documents, underscoring the importance of making historical records accessible and available to wider audiences.

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