The Amistad Research Center
Celebrates Milestone Anniversary
by Anitra D. Brown
There is a place in the city where historians and civil rights devotees can journey with the late poet and writer Tom Dent, pouring over the narratives and oral histories he collected from more than 100 people involved in the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.
For fans of Chester Himes’ crime fiction, there is a site right here in the Big Easy where they can find the novelist’s personal records, family documents, photographs, handwritten and typeset writings including letters between Himes and fellow writers, publishers, literary agents, friends and fans.
And get this: there is also a really cool spot in New Orleans that is a must-visit for anyone wanting to delve into the world of Bounce and Hip-Hop culture, a place where one will find an archive full of words and sounds, including video interviews with the likes of Mannie Fresh and Mystikal, Partners-n-Crime, DJ Raj Smoove, 5th Ward Weebie, TT Tucker, Cheeky Blackk, DJ Jubilee and 10th Ward Buck, just to name a few.
Actually, all of these experiences are possible in just one place. From listening to words of the purveyors of New Orleans’ biggity-biggity bounce to examining America’s foremost social justice movement through the eyes of those who were a part of it to taking a peak into the mind and life of the man who gave the world two of the coolest, smartest detectives Harlem had to offer in the his fictional characters Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones—the Amistad Research, tucked inside Tilton Hall on the campus of Tulane University, is a one-stop shop for discovery and study of America’s ethnic and racial history and culture, human relations issues and civil rights struggles with an acute focus on the experiences of people of African descent.
To be sure, plenty of folk across New Orleans and the world, for that matter, have been tapping into the Amistad and its vast stores of information for one thing or another.
“The Amistad Research Center handles a large number of visitors every year despite the small size of our space,” says its executive director Kara Olidge, Ph.D. “For 2015, the Center hosted 408 onsite researchers, performed 1,050 offsite reference requests by phone and email, accommodated 867 class and tour visitors, and had 1,057 individuals who visited our exhibitions. “
Later this month, the Amistad Research Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at Lawless Memorial Chapel on the campus of Dillard University.
The centerpiece of the celebration is “Here I Found a Goldmine,” a chore poem written and directed by Tommye Myrick and featuring musician Deacon John.
“An Evening at The Chapel” will feature music and literary readings. Honorary event co-chairs are Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough and Tulane University President Michael Fitts.
Retired news anchor Norman Robinson will serve as the master of ceremonies.
Tickets are $100 and can be purchased by visiting http://www.amistadresearchcenter.org/amistads50th.
Olidge has served as executive director of the Amistad Research Center since May 2015. Olidge, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College in philosophy and art history, her master’s degree in arts administration from the University of New Orleans and her doctorate in educational leadership from State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, is the first woman to serve as executive director of the center.
Prior to joining Amistad, the New Orleans native served as deputy director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and as the director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQ youth in Newark, New Jersey. While in graduate school at the University of New Orleans, she served as the director of education for the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and as a visual art curator at the Amistad Research Center.
As she continues to settle into her role, she shares her plans for the future of the Center.
“My vision for Amistad is two-fold,” says Olidge. “The Amistad Research Center is a public archival institution with tremendous global significance. We have researchers from all over the world accessing our collection so one aspect of my vision is to raise the profile of the organization that represents our reach. We have an extremely talented staff that I work closely with to increase our online presence by being active on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram. Raising our profile is a significant part of the second aspect of my vision, which is to increase funding for the Amistad. For our 50th anniversary celebration, we created the motto “Fifty Years of History, Fifty Years Forward.” I want to ensure that the Amistad is thriving for the next 50 years by creating a strategic plan to increase philanthropic gifts, grants, and create event-based annual fundraisers.”
Olidge says that gifts and grants are vital to Amistad and are often used to enhance the Center’s vast collection.
“For example, we received two grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services this year. We’ve also been fortunate enough to receive multiple grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation to create new film elements and digital masters for some of our film collection,” she says. “Our current project will preserve and make available a home movie of Ruby Bridges, which was shot by a teacher at William Frantz Elementary the year Bridges became the first African American student to desegregate the school. We also recently partnered with 371 Productions, who digitized footage of Wharlest Jackson’s funeral from the Ed Pincus collection for use in their documentary project on Jackson’s murder. This single reel is the only known footage of the funeral. A grant from the National Park Service’s Lower Mississippi Delta Region Initiative previously funded an inventory and rehousing project for the Pincus collection, which allowed us to make this rare footage available. This is really a because of the hard work of the staff, Chris Harter, Laura Thomson, Brenda Flora, Chianta Dorsey, Lee Facincani, Phillip Cunningham, and Jasmaine Talley.”
Olidge adds that partnerships at the local, national and global levels have also been important to expanding Amistad’s reach and solidifying its role as a premier institution as it looks ahead to the next 50 years.
For example, here in New Orleans, Amistad has collaborated with local institutions such as NOLA4WOMEN and Le Musée de f.p.c., by creating an exhibition to support NOLA4WOMEN’s initiative to improve the lives of women and girls in New Orleans as well as educate the community about the contributions of women to the city’s history.
Amistad’s national partnerships include work on a project with institutions in Chicago, Philadelphia and Riverside, Calif, to host four of forums that will focus on community archives integration and the potential impact for increased representation of marginalized communities and people in our digital cultural heritage.
“The forums will be in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, and New York,” Olidge says. “We are very excited about this project. And globally, we have partnered with Adam Matthew, an academic publisher in the United Kingdom, to publish the records of the Race Relations Department, a program founded in 1942 to engage in a discussion surrounding racial relationships within the U.S.”
A very supportive board of directors has also been pivotal to Amistad’s existence and success in fulfilling its mission, Olidge adds.
“We have a dynamic board led by Kim M. Boyle, who serves as president and chair,” says Olidge. “They are very dedicated to raising Amistad’s profile and increasing funding. The board is a major force in the planning and fundraising for our 50th anniversary. They are doing an exceptional job in meeting our fundraising goal.”
Amistad: The History and The Name
The Amistad has come a long way from its earliest days 50 years ago at Fisk University, where the idea for it sprouted from an enormous and no doubt tedious task—organizing the historical documents and records of the American Missionary Association, the Protestant-based abolitionist organization founded in 1846 as an offshoot of the Amistad Committee. The AMA is also founder of several schools, colleges and universities historically dedicated to the education of Black people, including Fisk and Dillard University, which also provided a home for the Amistad.
And as many are aware, the name of the Center pays homage to the legacy of the slave ship called Amistad. For any unfortunate souls that don’t know the story, here is the CliffNote’s version:
In January of 1839, a Mende man named Cinque is captured in West Africa and sold into slavery. In April of 1839, a Portuguese ship called the Tecora is filled with enslaved Africans, including Cinque, and begins a journey from Sierra Leone to Havana, Cuba, where two Cuban plantation owners purchase 53 of the people on board—49 men, one boy and three girls. Cinque is among the men. On June 28, those 53 enslaved Africans board another ship named Amistad headed from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba, after the two Cuban planters obtain falsified passports claiming that the ship would be transporting Blacks born in the New World. On July 1, Cinque and another African named Grabeau, free and arm themselves and others. At 4 a.m. on July 2, they lead a successful revolt, killing the ship’s crew; and for the next two months the Amistad sails through the Bahamas to the United States, eventually anchoring off the coast of Long Island on August 25, 1839. The ship was then “captured” by a U.S. Naval officer and brought to New London, Connecticut, where the naval officer hoped to get a reward. The surviving Africans, 39 men and four children, are jailed in New Haven and legal proceedings ensue. With the importation of slaves in America outlawed, the lawfulness of the Amistad’s activity and condition of the Africans as free or enslaved is questioned; and freedom for the Africans becomes a cause for abolitionists. In September 1839, Lewis Tappin, Rev. Joshua Leavitt and Rev. Simeon Jocelyn and other abolitionists form the Amistad Committee to raise funds to provide legal representation for the Africans and provide for their care. After several trials, proceedings and rulings, it is determined and affirmed that the Africans on board the Amistad are not “legally” enslaved; and in November of 1841, the then 35 surviving Africans that are still alive leave New York for Africa, arriving in Sierra Leone in January 1942.
So when the American Missionary Society sought a name for the place that would store its records and documents—many dating as far back as the 1839 when the AMA’s predecessor stood alongside Cinque and the other Africans in their fight for freedom—the name “Amistad” certainly seemed appropriate and appears now even more fitting for an institution that has grown so that it is considered the nation’s oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive dedicated to the Black experience in America.
The late Clifton H. Johnson, Ph.D., was Amistad’s founding director. In 1961, he was a professor at LeMoyne College (another HBCU founded by the efforts of the AMA), Johnson, who had actually completed his dissertation in the 1950s on the American Missionary Association, when he was asked to take a leave from LeMoyne in 1961 to bring some structure to the AMA’s massive, but unorganized collection of documents housed at Fisk. The first collection of AMA records deposited at the Amistad consisted of about 300,000 items. He himself once recalled as a doctoral student having to, while conducting research, sift through documents that looked as if they hadn’t been unfolded in a hundred years.
Johnson’s work organizing the AMA’s records became the foundation of the Amistad Research Center. He wanted to continue to collect and preserve primary documents about the AMA’s history and its work with African Americans, but there was no money for a continued effort.
Five years later, the AMA asked him to become the director of the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, which was also at Fisk. Through that agreement, he was able to establish the Amistad Research Center as part of the Race Relations Department.
In 1969 Amistad became an independent non-profit organization. In 1970, it relocated to Dillard University, where its collection began to grow beyond AMA documents and records.
New Orleans’ forever first lady Sybil Morial has been associated with Amistad since it moved to New Orleans, first becoming a member of the Friends of the Amistad Research Center, the later joining the Center’s board of director’s in 1981.
And while support for the center was great at Dillard, Morial says after about a decade, Amistad’s holdings had outgrown the space allotted to it inside the library at the university. By the early 1980s, Amistad moved to the United States Mint building in the French Quarter until a termite problem threatened forced the Center to look for another home.
“Our precious papers had to be protected,” Morial says, adding the board received several offers from universities and institutions from across the nation that not only offered Amistad a home, but also wanted to make it a part of their organizations.
“We wanted to stay in New Orleans; and we wanted to maintain our independence,” Morial says, adding that whenever the Amistad Research Center has moved, it has maintained its autonomy, with an independent board.
Eventually, Tulane University made the Amistad’s board an offer that met its condition and the Center has been located there since 1987.
What’s There: The Amistad Collection
The Center’s website boasts that its “strength” is in its holdings. The collection focuses on nearly every aspect of society from education to religion, from the Civil Rights movement to cultural arts, from politics and government to medicine. The Center has also become a noted repository for the personal papers of pivotal leaders throughout New Orleans’ history, including the city’s first Black Mayor Ernest Dutch Morial, New Orleans’ third Black mayor Marc Morial, civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, and the first Black state Supreme Court Justice Revius Ortique, among others.
Sybil Morial, whose personal papers are also at Amistad, calls the Center’s collection a “gold mine of accurate information” consisting of original flyers and pamphlets from the civil rights movement, personal papers, essays and periodicals that accurately reflect the history of ethnic people in America.
“That’s how we have gotten our Black history and know what was going on,” she says. “People have used Amistad collections to write dissertations and scholastic pieces that eventually end up in the text books. That’s the value of this archive.”
The Amistad’s holdings include 15 million original manuscripts and rare documents ranging from the 1790s to present; 2,000 plus periodicals dating from the early 19th century; 250,000 photographs dating from 1860; 1000 plus oral histories by musicians, civil rights activists, writers, military figures and community members; 400 works of African and African American art, including works by several internationally renowned 19th and 20th century African American masters; 25,000 plus monographs, books, articles and dissertations on the history of African-American and ethnic groups.
The Amistad houses the personal libraries of authors Countee Cullen and Tom Dent, and maintains an extensive collection of foreign translations Chester Himes’ work.
Though founded as an archives and library, in 1983 the Center’s fine arts collection was expanded significantly with the depositing of the Aaron Douglas Collection, an outstanding collection of fine work by African American artists that has been amassed by the Harmon Foundation, which provided philanthropic support and exhibition opportunities to African-American artists, writers and musicians during its 45-year existence. When the Harmon Foundation ceased operation in 1967, it placed its collection on indefinite loan to Fisk to be preserved and exhibited. Ten years later, the Aaron Douglas collection was officially transferred to the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries; and in 1983, the UCBHM formally deeded the collection to Amistad.
Today, Amistad’s fine arts collection now features more than 400 paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, including the works of Edward M. Bannister and Henry O. Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, William E. Scott, Palmer Hayden, Claude Clark, Ellis Wilson, William Artis, Richmond Barthé, Selma Burke, Jules Lion, Clementine Hunter, Jack Baron, Vivian Ellis, Jeffrey Cook, Ron Bechet, Sam Middleton, Keith Morrison, and James Phillips. In addition to its visual holdings, Amistad also stores the papers of artists Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, Vivan Ellis, William E. Pajaud, John T. Scott, Hale Woodruff and Varnette Honeywood. Amistad also has an audio visual collection of more than 8,000 individual moving image and sound recordings — oral history interviews, concert recordings, documentary films, television programs, home movies and other material.
As director, Olidge says it impossible for her to pick one aspect of the Center’s vast collection that she appreciates most. From the fine art work to the artifacts to the manuscripts and original documents, periodicals and recorded oral histories—each piece is an important part of a bigger story.
“It is a never-ending journey into history,” she says. “When you come here you are walking into a world of visual art, oral histories, learning about the education of ethnic groups and establishment of Historical Black Colleges and Universities by the American Missionary Association, literature, manuscripts, music, documentaries, and so much more. Every part of the Amistad reflects who we are and where we are in this world. It’s the story of our lives and, to me, that’s why it’s an important resource.”