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Highlights Archives

Civil Rights Collections Are a Research Gem

Civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates looking through a broken window repaired with tape
WHI 32538

February is Black History Month, an appropriate time to highlight the richness and depth of the Wisconsin Historical Society's civil rights collections. The holdings are particularly strong in three areas: the movement in Wisconsin, particularly Milwaukee; the activities of national civil rights organizations and leaders; and the 1960s sit-ins, voter registration drives and demonstrations in the South.

The Civil Rights Movement in Milwaukee

Milwaukee has been the site of major civil rights conflict, especially over the the issues of desegregation in housing and schools. The Wisconsin holdings include the letters, speeches, photos and other papers of prominent leaders in housing desegregation like James Groppi and extensive records from civil rights leader Lloyd Barbee and others documenting the decades-long struggles to desegregate Milwaukee schools. Barbee founded the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee, which became the primary vehicle for his desegregation efforts and a class-action lawsuit against the city's school board.

Documenting Discrimination in the South

Far afield from Wisconsin, the Society's holdings detail many poignant chapters in the history of the civil rights movement in the South, where so much racial strife occurred. The largest and probably most prominent civil rights collection is the records of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The organization's 1947 "Journey of Reconciliation" and 1960s lunch counter sit-ins and "freedom rides" were influential in ending discrimination in interstate travel and accommodations.

Another collection of particular note is the papers of Daisy Bates, who spearheaded the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, an event that riveted the nation when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to make integration a reality. Among the many speeches, letters, and clippings are photographs of Bates as well as one of the most arresting physical artifacts of the movement: the rock that was hurled through the window of Bates' Little Rock home. Wisconsin Historical Images also contains a special gallery of civil rights images that includes photographs of demonstrations and sit-ins as well as images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Southern civil rights activists Carl and Anne Braden, whose papers are housed in the Society's archives.

Also in the holdings are collections from more than 75 "Freedom Summer" volunteers, mostly Northern college students, like slain voter registration activist Andrew Goodman, one of three young civil rights workers who went South in the summer of 1964 to work in voter registration and freedom school initiatives only to die at the hands of white supremacists. The story of their civil rights activism and their murders formed the storyline for the 1988 film, Mississippi Burning. A collection of papers related to Goodman is one of the jewels of the Society's civil rights holdings.

The Collections' Value as a Research Resource

Throughout American history, race relations have been one of the country's most pressing issues. The Society's collections contribute to an understanding of the history of race relations, a necessary element in the continuing efforts to resolve those issues. Scholars from across the country visit Madison to consult the civil rights holdings. In fact, most major histories of the civil rights movement reference the Society's collections. Students in Wisconsin also make heavy use of the collections at the Madison headquarters and via the statewide Area Research Center network. College, high school, and even middle school students from across the state regularly consult the civil rights holdings. Civil rights topics have been popular among the thousands of Wisconsin middle and high school students participating in the annual National History Day competition. The sources make the struggles of the movement come alive in ways that textbooks cannot.

"I am not aware of a richer or more diverse collection related to the civil rights movement than that held by the Wisconsin Historical Society," said Will Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor and a member of the Society's Board of Curators. "In addition to relying heavily on the collection for my own research, I have sent scores of students there. Regardless of what aspect of the civil rights movement they are interested in, they are sure to find useful material at the Society."

Why Madison?

Some might wonder how a Northern institution like the Society came to acquire such treasurers of the civil rights movement. The holdings are part of the larger Social Action Collections and fit squarely within the Society's and the state's traditions. Since the turn of the 20th century, the library and archives have actively collected in the history of social reform movements, a strategy firmly rooted in Wisconsin's Progressive tradition of state and university cooperation in solving social problems.

:: Posted February 1, 2010

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