The Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) at the University of Chicago launched an exhibit this week commemorating its first 15 years of existence and celebrating the history of African American cultural archiving and preservation in the city.
The BMRC was founded in 2006 by Danielle Allen, a professor of classics and political science at the U. of C. She also started the Civic Knowledge Project, which aims to bring humanities education to the neighborhoods around the school. (Allen left for Princeton in 2007, and now teaches at Harvard.)
The consortium had a similarly democratizing impulse, initially within the academy: its goal was to create more access for scholars and librarians to resources from “institutions with significant holdings in African American culture, history, and politics.”
Or, as current executive director Marcia Walker-McWilliams explains it: “There was a major problem. Scholars interested in researching and writing about African American history and culture, how it was that we were able to access materials that can help us write those books and narratives and tell those stories. That was a central concern.”
The groups that became part of the BMRC included major players within Chicago’s cultural network, like the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum. But smaller neighborhood-based groups — such as the Bronzeville Historical Society or the Shorefront Legacy Center, which collects materials about Black people living on the North Shore — also joined up.
As the exhibit tells it, the first years were mostly about processing and organizing backlogs of material, which had been an obstacle for many of the BMRC member institutions up to that point. "There (were) also challenges for archivists and librarians. They had to staff to deal with these tremendous backlogs. How do scholars work with these institutions to help the discovery and use of these materials?", said Walker-McWilliams. “I would really love for people to take away from this exhibit the fact that collaboration is key.”
Recently, the BMRC has shifted toward more community engagement. “We realized that though we were founded as this kind of connection between academics and librarians and archivists, there are people in this community who are also researchers and want access to this information,” said Walker-McWilliams.
To that end, one of the consortium’s latest initiatives, “Documenting Black Chicago Through Technology, Sustainability and Outreach,” includes an educational portal for people who want to learn how to document and preserve their own archival collections at home.
The exhibit also points to the long history of Black historical preservation in Chicago. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in the city. The librarian Vivian G. Harsh built up a “Special Negro Collection” at her Bronzeville branch, garnering support from the likes of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. The BMRC itself is named after a pioneering sociological study by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton of Black life on the South Side.
“The city has a really rich culture and a place in preserving African American history,” said Walker-McWilliams. “I see the BMRC as helping to continue to do that work, to put people in conversation with the sources, to help preserve those sources, to help diversify the archival profession — all of those things are things that we’re still trying to do to keep that legacy alive.”