It’s the first day of American Archives Month, and a time to celebrate both archivists and the archival record that exists in so many archives, libraries, museums, corporations, historical societies and organizations around the country. There are many things I value about being an archivist—yes, I chose this profession intentionally, yes it has both challenges and amazing moments, and yes, after 30+ years, I still find things to astound, inspire, perplex and energize me.
One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the years is “getting to know” people whom I will never encounter in real life—not because they are on the Internet, a blog, or twitter, but because, well, they are no longer alive. They are the voices that come from the records with which I’ve worked. Those letters, census pages, photographs, wills, and even maps provide the glimpses of a life lived in my “neighborhood” (in this case the state of New York), and sometimes tell compelling stories that intrigue and engage me.
One of my archival neighbors of whom I think periodically is Genevieve Hankins-Hawke. I got to know Genevieve through the records of New York State’s World War II War Council. Genevieve was a 30-something African-American nurse, widow and mother during the war. She saw a job posting for a nursing position at a hospital in Salamanca (that’s in western NY).
She sent her impressive resume and application letter. Travel being challenging at that time, and the need for nurses and hiring practices different, she was immediately offered a position, also by mail. When she reported for work, she was told by the hospital administrator “Oh, my, we didn’t realize you were a negro. We can’t have you working here.” She was “dismissed” and returned to her home in downstate NY. She reported this to the NY State Commission against Discrimination in Employment in a very controlled, but (for me) emotional handwritten letter of many pages. The response from the Commission staff was to help her find a nursing position in another hospital.
After getting to know Genevieve through her letter and files, I’ve often wondered about the rest of the story. Did she feel the Commission’s response was adequate? Did the Commission take action with the hospital? How did her career progress after that, did her encounters with racism in her profession continue? And just maybe, is she still alive? I’ve not found any answers yet and that’s a story for which I may never know the ending, a life about which I will always wonder. But Genevieve’s story gave a very direct and personal voice to the experience of racism, and is one that I share with others and have carried with me in the over 25 years since I processed the records.
Archives have an incredible power to expand the range of people and stories we know and the experiences in which we can share through another person’s life—and it creates a neighborhood without boundaries of place or time. So as we celebrate American Archives Month, I hope you’ll think about the historical neighbors you’ve met, and perhaps share their stories with others. Here is a good place to start—who have you met on your journey through archival records?