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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

As Always, Adina: A Perspective of a Life through Letters

“If we are successful as archivists, the historical record will speak for this [the nation’s] past, in a full and truthful voice. And, as a society, we will be wiser for understanding who and where we have been.”
--John Fleckner

Adina Via, 1955
As an intern in the Archives Center, I have the opportunity to watch archivists hard at work preserving the documentary evidence of the past and the present. Through my program, Smith at the Smithsonian, I am conducting independent research. For my project, I am using a collection of over five hundred letters that Adina Mae Via wrote to her boyfriend, Franklin 

Letter from Adina Via to Frank Robinson,
January 15, 1951
Robinson, from 1951 to 1960.  They are part of the Robinson-Via Family Papers, 1845-2001

Adina’s letters are a consistent record of how she presents herself to Franklin during her transitions from high school to the workforce in 1950s rural Maryland.  As I delve deeper into her letters, I learn about the details of her everyday life; from how often she washes her hair, to the cost of her long distance phone bill, to how long she spent planting tobacco, to how much she enjoys her newfound independence from her job. Yet, there is just as much to discover from what is left unwritten.

Adina Via, 1955
To my surprise, Adina explicitly mentions race only once in her letters writing, “they had four colored people down [at the farm] today” on August 27, 1956. Furthermore, once I learned she attended a segregated high school, I began to wonder how she saw the world in terms of the racial inequalities that existed. I am in the process of researching the demographics of the area where she lived in an effort to learn what Adina’s environment physically looked like, whether on her drive to work, in church, or shopping in downtown D.C. As I scrutinize Adina’s life from my twenty-first century perspective, I realize that I must try to see the world from her viewpoint. In doing so I am better able to learn from her and share the multiple truths and complexities of her life. Through Adina’s letters I am able to reflect on Fleckner’s words by examining “who and where we have been” as an American society. But to truly learn from her, I must recognize our similarities and reflect upon how I too am sometimes immune to the inequalities before me.

Rachel Dean, Smith College Intern
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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