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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Uncovering the Institute on Race Relations

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Having a background in History, I found processing collections is almost like working with a puzzle. At the start, all the pieces are laid before you, and it is your task to organize it bit by bit, photo by photo, news clip by news clip. Once a complete stranger to the material, you come to know it like the back of your hand, and sometimes more thoroughly than a researcher who will later come to use it. By creating a finding aid, especially the biographical scope, you come to regard the collection as a work of art and as a way to help bridge the gap between past and present.

Letterhead from the Institute on Race Relations collection, Anacosita Community Museum Archives, gift of Henry P. Whitehead 

For me, processing the Institute on Race Relations collection was just that— a way to connect with the past and expand my knowledge of the fight for equality in the African American community
mid-20th century.

Created in 1943 and based in Washington, D.C. , the purpose of the Institute was multi-fold. It aimed to reform communities in the U.S by advocating for democracy and challenging segregation. It attacked discriminatory practices like Jim Crowism and the segregation of African American soldiers in the U.S military, and advocated for the use of non-violent political action as a way of creating a sense of togetherness in the community.

The main focus of the Institute, however, was to build multi-racial relationships with the hope of allowing collective action to flourish and strengthen the community. America was to look inward and challenge itself to become the greatest democratic nation imaginable. This was the ultimate desire of the Institute, and its message was broadcast to the public through various means.

1949 Banquet announcement, Institute on Race Relations collection, Anacosita Community Museum Archives, gift of Henry P. Whitehead

One of the pieces in the collection that I found interesting was a banquet announcement from President of the Institute Tomlinson D. Todd to members of the Institute advocating support for the Americans All Radio program.  The program featured notable figures in academia, politics and entertainment who professed similar ideas of racial tolerance and democracy in an effort to spread the need for social change.

Such change often came in the form of requests for political action as these documents below demonstrates.
Institute on Race Relations collection, Anacosita Community Museum Archives, gift of Henry P. Whitehead

Institute on Race Relations collection, Anacosita Community Museum Archives, gift of Henry P. Whitehead

Although the Institute on Race Relations operated domestically, it challenged the way in which other oppressed minorities were treated globally. Calling for a march on Washington, the Free India Committee of Reconciliation urged DC residents and citizens alike to march for the liberation of the Indian and Puerto Rican people from their oppressors. This notion of spreading democratic ideals was a major theme found in the Institute on Race Relations collection, and highlights the efforts that all of its members took in order to bring about social change.

This connection between India and America however is one that requires further exploration. Greater emphasis is needed in discovering the history of the Institute on race relations— the history between Gandhi and the desire to utilize non-violent political action in the African American community.

Institute on Race Relations collection, Anacosita Community Museum Archives, gift of Henry P. Whitehead

All in all, I discovered this small collection in its entirety helps to shed light on the necessity of nonviolent political action and the need to develop methods of bringing about peace and harmony in multiple communities.

In processing the Institute on Race Relations records, I was able to take some of the rhetoric, some of the material, and apply it to my own life. At times I became so immersed with the documents that they began to take on a life of their own. In reading the material, I was able to put myself in the shoes of the demonstrators, to fight alongside them as they fought for change in a world that seemed static and inflexible. Their hopes for social transformation in the past mimicked mine in the present, and allowed me to connect with the collection at its core. I had such pleasure processing this collection, and hope that researchersdiscover and connect with this material as much as I have.

Bremacha La Guerre
Anacostia Community Museum  Archives

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