Connecting Black Histories

Time chasers preserve and share the history of South Florida’s Black communities.

By Sarah Block

Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 17, 2014) — Beatrice Skokan, manuscripts librarian at the University of Miami Libraries Special Collections, is a time chaser. As an archivist, Skokan is a collector, especially of materials that reflect the day-to-day history of a community.

“There is a strong sense of urgency to acquire and preserve them, and make them accessible, before they are thrown away,” she said, adding that providing access to materials should come before ownership.

That’s part of the philosophy behind the Special Collections initiative known as the Collaborative Archive of the African Diaspora (CAAD). Formed in 2010, CAAD is a searchable Web portal for manuscripts and other original cultural materials related to South Florida’s historically black communities, and is accessible through the University of Miami Libraries website.

By inputting key words in the portal, researchers are directed to any relevant holdings from the CAAD partnering research institutions, which in addition to UM Libraries, include The Black Archives History and Research Center of South Florida, the Broward County Library African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, Florida International University Special Collections, Florida Memorial University Special Collections, Historic Hampton House Community Trust, HistoryMiami, and the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

“Before the CAAD, a lot of materials were being actively collected by these local institutions, but they were lacking resources and expertise to make materials accessible and to preserve them,” said Yolanda Cooper, who envisioned the CAAD after being appointed to the position of deputy university librarian in 2006.

It began as a quest for a new archive in Special Collections. Cooper and other librarians reached out to the community and started acquiring the materials to build it.

“First we got the Bob Simms Collection, and that led to collections for Dr. John O. Brown and the Rev. Theodore Gibson, and then Thelma Gibson,” Cooper said.

All are known for significant civil rights activism and community leadership.
From its first acquisition, the Libraries began to attract interest in the community, and formed a partnership with the Black Archives History and Research Center of South Florida, which was founded in 1977.

“We also saw the importance of materials remaining in the community,” Cooper said.

The Libraries provided the technology and training to partnering institutions to improve access, and in areas like preservation techniques and using cataloguing software. In just three years, CAAD has grown, and gone digital.

Guy Forchion, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, said that since the CAAD portal opened online, there has been a noticeable rise in foot traffic in the archive, which focuses particularly on the history of Miami’s once official beach for African Americans.

“For a smaller cultural and history organization, the CAAD has made it possible to reach a constituency of students, researchers, and scholars that may not have normally accessed the rich cultural history of Miami’s historic beach park,” Forchion said.

Each of the participating institutions has its unique areas of focus under the broader African diaspora umbrella, but search results produce plenty of overlap. “The collaboration crosses geographical, cultural, and institutional boundaries,” Skokan said.

Topics varying from civil rights and political activity in Miami to Caribbean ephemera show up in different contexts across the partnership. For instance, CAAD users who search the key word “beach” will find a handful of digitized photos from the trust, as well as aids for finding a non-digitized photography collection from 1937 at HistoryMiami related to relaxing outdoors.

Earlier this year UM Libraries received a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield to further develop the CAAD. The funds enabled the Libraries to purchase collection materials, improve formatting for audiovisual materials, and hire student interns to process collections.

Collection purchases included photographic prints of Haitian life by Maggie Steber (The Audacity of Beauty), and a pre-Civil War letter carried by a North American slave, declaring his permission to travel.

The grant also allowed the development of a new collection, Haitian Oral Histories, featuring video interviews with various notable artists and activists in South Florida’s Haitian community. Personal history, such as letters or interviews, are common primary source materials, but the video format was chiefly inspired by its cultural relevance to Haiti’s rich tradition of storytelling.
Cooper said that such primary resource materials provide a different dimension to research, and may expand the archives’ reach beyond the research community to include primary and secondary education.

“It gives students an opportunity to be involved,” she said. “It builds critical thinking skills; they can come up with their own questions as they’re looking through the material, organize information, and build a narrative.”

In a way, students’ interaction with Special Collections is ultimately how various documentary materials are brought to life—it is University student interns who process and help catalog materials in order for them to become accessible.

However, to Cooper, who recently assumed a new position as University Librarian at Emory University in Atlanta, access to such materials should also thrive in the communities where they were originally found, which is why CAAD was established.

“We have been able to leverage our expertise in order to pull together these various resources, help each other, and better serve the community,” she said.

She also expressed her hope that CAAD will “extend beyond South Florida to encompass an even broader scope of documentation of the black experience,” emphasizing that the “experience” includes active history—the whole picture, of which no piece is too small.

The CAAD portal is accessible through the University of Miami Libraries website at caad.library.miami.edu.

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