Lincoln University archivists find historical gems

Black history turns up in documents at Philadelphia school

April 30, 2001|By Jonathan Gelb | Jonathan Gelb,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - In a bland, windowless room at the nation's oldest historically black college, amid stacks of moldering files and sheaves of tattered papers, Ed Gibson makes history.

Literally.

One of two archivists at Lincoln University, Gibson sifts methodically through 65 musty boxes of lost letters, worn books and wilted posters that bring to life black history in the Philadelphia region and the nation.

Like a scavenger, he picks through papers one by one and indexes documents for students and scholars. Without the meticulous effort of archivists such as Gibson, many valuable documents would never be found.

"It takes a lot of patience. You have to be interested enough to sit there and do it," said Gibson, 60, adding that it will take five years to sort through the boxes. "I'm just one of those people who likes old things."

His kingdom is the library basement. No windows. Few people. Lots of cobwebbed boxes, stainless-steel file cabinets, and lonely library stacks.

But in the room are historical treasures.

There is a tattered 1936 letter from agricultural scientist George Washington Carver on whether peanut oil cures arthritis. And there's a fading World War II poster belonging to poet Langston Hughes advertising a "Negro Freedom Rally" in New York for an admission price of 44 cents.

Albert Einstein photo

There is also a black-and-white photo from Graduation Day 1946 of Albert Einstein, his wild gray hair in a tangle, receiving an honorary degree from Lincoln.

"If we could really get in and dig up all the stuff we have down there, we could tell a fantastic history of black culture - even white culture," said Ivory Nelson, president of the university, which was established in 1854 in southern Chester County.

Alumni include Hughes, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and two presidents of African nations. Lincoln also produced Pennsylvania's first black judge and congressman, and it has attracted many luminaries for lectures and graduations over the years.

Archiving Lincoln's history requires a few things, Gibson said. Nimble hands, endurance, organizational skills, a passion for history.

And luck.

Gibson accidentally stumbled on a number of valuable documents while he was cleaning out an old file cabinet in the library basement a year ago.

Wedged in the bottom of the file cabinet were forgotten historical gems, including letters to business contacts and newspapers by Carver and Booker T. Washington, an original slave manifest, and a pamphlet from a 1787 Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery meeting.

As he does with all documents, Gibson pulled them out and cataloged them.

"My question was: Why hadn't these ever been handled right?" said Gibson, a World War I history buff who has been at Lincoln as the special-collections librarian for two years. "Quite often, the feeling is anger more than anything else, because things haven't been taken care of."

Gibson said previous handlers either forgot the documents, misplaced them, or did not realize what they were. He and his assistant, Susan Pevar, spend about a quarter of their time going through documents. Much of their time is spent helping students with research; Gibson also teaches European history.

Beginning in 1854

But when the archival work does occur, the world slows down.

"I know it would probably drive some people crazy, just the idea of being in a windowless room and the tedium of going through things," said Pevar, who began working at Lincoln in July. "I tend to get very focused in what I'm doing, so the surroundings kind of disappear anyway."

The basement is only part of it, though. The material - and the history of Lincoln - also is enticing. Set in remote farm country, Lincoln was first organized as Ashmun Institute in 1854. The university was renamed in 1866 after President Abraham Lincoln.

It enrolls 1,800 students, 90 percent of them black, and offers 49 undergraduate and six graduate degrees in a variety of fields.

"This institution has had not only exceptional influence on American life, but also on African life," Nelson said. Yet, in many ways, the history of Lincoln and its influence is incomplete. The archivists are still making it.

The personal library of Hughes, Class of 1929, is perhaps the gem of Lincoln's collection. Hughes willed it to the university. It is exhibited in glass showcases and located on the library's ground floor in the special-collections section.

But the basement is ground zero for archival work. Some of the items found there are exhibited at Lincoln; others are lent to exhibitions elsewhere.

There are the photos of Graduation Day 1969. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, with fat lamb-chop sideburns, received an honorary degree. So did Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The framed photo from 1926 of 14 Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers sitting on the steps of a campus building features a youthful Marshall in a suit and tie. He was Class of 1930.

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