Skip to Main Content

Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide

African-American History and Culture

The Manuscript Division has one of the nation's most valuable collections for the study of African-American history and culture. The Library's holdings include information about slavery and the slave trade as well as other aspects of plantation life. Papers of slaveholders provide one view of slavery, and slave narratives give another. Diaries and journals further illuminate lives spent in slavery and freedom. The manuscripts of black and white abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Salmon P. Chase describe the efforts of those who attempted to alleviate the plight of slaves, and the records of the American Colonization Society detail the saga of African Americans who left the United States and established the West African nation of Liberia in the mid- nineteenth century. Papers relating to black participation and victimization in the Civil War abound, and African-American history during Reconstruction is reflected in collections pertaining to newly elected black officials such as John Mercer Langston, Blanche K. Bruce, Hiram R. Revels, and Francis L. Cardozo.

Abraham Lincoln. Preliminary Draft of Emancipation Proclamation. Tuesday, July 22, 1862. Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Abraham Lincoln's preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was shown to his Cabinet in July 1862. In it, Lincoln warns that if the rebellion is not ended in four months, as a "necessary military measure" he will "order and declare . . . all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever be free."

Efforts by African-Americans to educate themselves and find meaningful employment can be traced in the papers of historian Carter G. Woodson and educator Nannie Helen Burroughs. Also available are the papers of the first three presidents of Tuskegee Institute—Booker T. Washington, Robert Russa Moton, and Frederick D. Patterson. The papers of Gen. Noel F. Parrish--the white World War II commander of the Tuskegee air base where black airmen were trained by the army air corps for the first time—reveal how blacks and whites worked together to dispel racist presumptions of black inferiority. Information on the training of black aviators and the establishment of the Tuskegee flight school may also be found in the diaries of historian Rayford W. Logan, who in the early 1940s was acting chair of the Committee on Participation of Negroes in the National Defense Program.

Logan is best known as a historian and professor at Howard University, but like other prominent black educators he was also involved in civil rights activities. The papers of historian Lorenzo J. Greene, who taught for many years at Lincoln University in Missouri, similarly reflect his involvement in the National Urban League (NUL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), his participation on two different presidential commissions concerning the status of blacks and children, and his authorship of an important study on school desegregation for the United States Civil Rights Commission. The papers of Kenneth Bancroft Clark also reveal a college professor and social psychologist whose concern with the psychology of racism brought him national attention in the post-World War II era, when his research on the detrimental effects of segregation was cited in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Frederick Douglass. Autobiographical Sketch for the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. ca. 1891. Frederick Douglass Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
This manuscript (ca. 1891) of an autobiographical article is in the hand of Frederick Douglass, who prepared it for The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, but escaped in 1838 and eventually became a renowned abolitionist, orator, journalist, and public official. In 1845 he published a full-length autobiography and subsequently produced two revised versions. Drafts of these are among his papers held in the Manuscript Division.
Lucindy Lawrence Jurdon, Age 79. Taken between 1936 and 1938. Federal Writer's Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA). Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

This photograph of former slave Lucindy Lawrence Jurdon accompanied the transcript of an oral history interview conducted with her during the 1930s as part of the ex-slave narrative program of the Work Projects Administration's Federal Writers Project. In seventeen states WPA workers interviewed hundreds of African Americans born before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865. Some of the informants were infants and small children when the Civil War ended, but others were old enough to have experienced and remembered many aspects of slavery. The narratives often are as interesting to historians studying the history of African Americans in the 1930s as to scholars examining the antebellum period.

The division's collections are particularly strong for the history of the twentieth-century civil rights movement. The work of individual activists, rights organizations, and jurists is well represented. The NAACP and the NUL were founded in the first decade of the twentieth century and became important vehicles for the advancement of civil rights for blacks in the United States. Both, in turn, selected the Library of Congress as the repository for their records. While the NUL has tended to concentrate its efforts in the area of equal employment opportunities for blacks, the NAACP has moved forward on many fronts and has been most successful in its drive for equal legal protection. The NAACP led the struggle for the abolition of segregation, discrimination, lynching, and other forms of racial oppression.

Marion S. Trikosko. Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the March on Washington. 1963. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
March participants called on President John F. Kennedy and the Congress to enfranchise African Americans, and give them equal access to public facilities, quality education, adequate employment, and decent housing. Among the Manuscript Division's unparalleled sources for the study of the twentieth-century civil rights movement are the personal papers of Rauh, Wilkins, and Randolph, as well as the organizational records of the NAACP, the NUL, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

The NAACP headquarters and Washington bureau records include more than two million items, which provide a rich source for the social history of black Americans in the twentieth century. In addition to these organizational records, the division holds the personal papers of some of the individuals who worked closely with the NAACP such as Moorfield Storey, the association's first president; Arthur B. Spingarn, its third president; and Roy Wilkins, longtime administrator and executive director from 1965 to 1977. The division also holds the records of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was created by the NAACP just before World War II but eventually became independent of the parent organization. The fund's records document its presence at the forefront of the legal struggle for civil rights. Complementing these records are the personal papers of Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the special counsel and director of the fund from its creation until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Other important civil rights activists and organizations represented in the Manuscript Division include the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose records date from 1920 to 1968, and the union's founder, Asa Philip Randolph, who also served as its president from 1925 to 1968. The papers of Bayard T. Rustin, a close associate of Randolph and an apostle of non-violent action, are also in the division's holdings.

The papers of two well-known political figures, Patricia Roberts Harris and Senator Edward W. Brooke, illustrate the efforts of African Americans to move into the center of the political arena. Harris, the first black woman to hold a Cabinet position, served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (later called Health and Human Services) under President Jimmy Carter. Brooke was the third black United States senator in the nation's history and the only one elected in the twentieth century until Carol Moseley Braun's victory in 1992.

The division's African-American manuscript collections have served historians well, supporting the much-increased scholarship in black history that began in the 1960s. The NAACP records are annually the most heavily used collection in the division, and other black history collections attract large numbers of scholars, testifying to their importance not only to the Library but to the nation itself.