​‘Archiving in Black’

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer
In her work on the The African-American Eastern Kentucky Migration Project (EKAAMP), Karida Brown was given an old biscuit tin that she said had seen better days.
“When we received this biscuit can, we said, ‘Okay. What’s this?’ But the family shared the story. It was a set of four siblings, and they decided they had plenty of records about their father’s labor because the company-owned coal town had official documentation to represent their father. There were no jobs for women unless you were a teacher when they were growing up,” Brown said in her talk.
Brown, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles and the author of the book “Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia,” spoke last month on the campus of the University of the South. Her talk, “Archiving in Black: The African-American Eastern Kentucky Migration Project,” detailed the importance of preserving the complete history of Appalachia.
“Appalachia is not only white. It’s not just poor white. It’s a diverse space and always has been,” Brown said in her talk.
The EKAAMP archive is a formal collection housed at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Brown describes it as a community-driven project founded on the stories told by those that lived them.
Brown, who is a third-generation descendent of black coal miners, has worked on EKAAMP for the last eight years. Through her research, she’s learned the importance of understanding and appreciating the overlooked parts of history.
“Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in the early 20th century in Lynch, Ky. My granddaddies were coal miners, and my parents were born, grew up, and raised in these coal towns. I’m not from this region, but I share roots,” she said in her talk. “I wanted to research and study the black experience in Appalachia, but when I got to the archives, there wasn’t anything on them for me to start my research. I had to go out into the streets and build one. I had to write the history so I could examine the questions I was interested in.”
Woody Register, director of the project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation, said the importance of Brown’s work, and what he hopes the project is able to accomplish in Sewanee, is providing a more complete picture of the history of the South.
“What we’re trying to do is expand African-American history beyond just those marquis moments. We want to recover and preserve and make known the history of everyday life here, the ways in which African Americans contributed to Sewanee life as laborers, as families, as leaders in the community. We want to enlarge what we think of as African-American history. They don’t just come into existence when they do something special for the university or win a desegregation suit, although these are important too,” Register said.
Brown detailed her work on the EKAAMP archive, explaining that any African-American person who claimed a shared history in or through Eastern Kentucky was invited to be part of the project.
“Not only are the community members a part of constituting this archive, but they are set up as the leaders. It’s a big table, but there are only so many seats. Our intention was that the community members would have the most seats and the most prominent seats at the table,” she said.
“The black experience in America is always tethered to this simultaneous experience of joy, community, family and expression. It’s also tethered to a story of layered historical catastrophe that was inaugurated by the slave trade and the legacies of the traumas. Those two sets of experiences are already always part and parcel to the black experience.”
Brown said in a community, an archive like EKAAMP can do at least three things—it can create a place for those whose are often ignored; it gives an opportunity for marginalized folks to be present and accounted for in history and it allows for those in the communities to be remembered in their own fashion.
“The foundation of this project are the stories. They confirm the historical record, but they also challenge it. Stories are how we pass on who we are to the next generation. In the black community, the oral tradition is part and parcel to who we are,” she said. “The family who donated the biscuit tin, their mother was a homemaker, and they wanted to honor her labor. That biscuit can had holes in it because every day, she woke up and fed her family through this labor. To have those materials from the folks who experienced it, that is a rare archival material. We’re really proud of this archive.”