Addressing the unaddressed: Tuskegee University’s Hidden Audio Collections, 1957-1971
Editor’s note: this post was originally published in June 2017 and has been updated to reflect Artstor’s platform changes.
Tuskegee University Archives recently released new recordings from the Tuskegee Civic Association records that feature prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. These speeches, addressing the Tuskegee community, fill in historical gaps to illuminate the relationships between leaders and their constituents.
The collection was digitized from reel-to-reel tape under the care of university archivist Dana Chandler and made available through funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the Council of Independent Colleges. The recordings are freely available to listen to in Artstor’s public collections.
Artstor staff members Evan Towle and Karyn Anonia spoke with Chandler about his work.
ET: First, can you speak a little about your history with the Archives at Tuskegee?
DC: I’m in my eleventh year. I’d first visited in 1972—my parents brought us down here to see Carver’s laboratory, and I fell in love with the place then. I did not ever expect to work here. The opportunity kind of fell into my lap, and I have been able to, I think, develop the Archives into a viable place for researchers to come from the US and all around the world to work on the materials to fill in some blanks that have been evident for a long time about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the history of Tuskegee as a whole, as well as the work of African Americans, how successful they really were during the time of Jim Crow Laws and laws of segregation.
When you think about Tuskegee, you think about George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington. You think about the Tuskegee Airmen, and maybe something called the Syphilis Study, which did not happen here on the campus. But it is much more than those things. The first Extension Agent to the US Federal Government came from Tuskegee—not just the first black agent, but the first Extension Agent came from Tuskegee University—the first African American Hospital in Alabama; the first school to offer a four-year degree in nursing in Alabama; the first African American woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics, Alice Coachman Davis, went to Tuskegee. And believe me, I could go on and on ad nauseam about the stuff that’s here.
We have 600 historically significant collections. And that includes over 1/4 million photographs. We just received a collection two weeks ago from a man in Florida, Donald Polk, that I probably would call the highlight of my career. There are photographs that have never been seen of Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver. The three photographs that are in the article from the news of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali, those were just released for the first time. We have over 750 reel-to-reel tapes, 1,000 cassette tapes, 1,200-1,400 VHS tapes, Beta tapes. Listen, we have things I have not even begun to look into because we have a small staff and very little funding. What funding I get, I get from grants. This one, the CIC/Shared Shelf [now JSTOR Forum] grant , was a non-funded grant. You guys provided the space. We had to have funding to work on those tapes.
ET: And where did that funding come from?
DC: A Lyrasis/Mellon Foundation grant. And that grant, I planned to be a three-phase grant where we work not only with CIC, but also the Smithsonian Museum of African American Culture. First phase was Lyrasis, second phase was CIC, and third phase was Smithsonian, and all three phases have come to fruition.
ET: What’s your relationship to the Smithsonian in regards to these materials?
We are the first University to have a relationship with the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. We’re providing them with photos and other things. They give us funding for certain projects. Unfortunately, our funding for the tapes has come to an end. We do everything in-house. Most places don’t. We just added three albums to the Shared Shelf [now Artstor] site. One of them is a 1916 recording of the Tuskegee University singers.
ET: Oh, I heard that! “Give me that old time religion”—I listened to it last night.
DC: The thing is that when we got it, it was broken. And we had to repair it here in-house, or I did, and we cleaned it as best we could and then we played it. And I like the popping and the cracking stuff. That’s just me. I’m an old-fashioned guy. I guess I’m old school. I thought it was really cool to have something from 1916 to play for everybody.
We’re still adding to the Shared Shelf [now Artstor public] collection. We will be uploading the three new tapes tomorrow. Then we have two others that are mind-blowers. One was after a very famous African American was elected to the House of Representatives in Atlanta. I’m not going to fill you in much more because I want to keep it a surprise. But. There’s a question-and-answer period after that is just absolutely fascinating and enlightening.
ET: I was listening to Mrs. Myrlie Evers in a speech she delivered where she addressed the complaint that her political work was “castrating” the men in the movement. Her reply was that it was a “bitter pill to swallow,” and she did it such power and grace, and with a litany of all the things the movement doesn’t have the luxury of indulging.
DC: I love that speech. That’s one of my favorites. The three that are coming up: the Muhammad Ali thing where he talks about “the hidden punch” and does his little poem. That is fantastic stuff. King’s speech is apropos for today.
ET: As you’ve mentioned before, these are not the same speeches that were delivered on the national stage. They’re different. Have you been able to draw any conclusions about how, exactly, they’re different?
DC: The situation is that when you have these individuals that are speaking to their own constituents, they’re giving information, they’re saying it in a way that is specific to the constituents, not the media. And they tell us things about the Civil Right movement, the passion, the intricacies that were going on, of developing it, who the leaders were. Sometimes the leaders were not as evident as they might appear. We get all these big names, Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, but we don’t hear about the other ones who are the ground level. The ones that are at the local level who are doing these things. It’s amazing to me.
ET: What’ the physical condition of some of the other magnetic media that you have?
DC: We are preserving a lot. We are saving a lot. I’m very pragmatic about this. We have two deep freezers that we’re going to freeze everything in. But I also am aware of the need to digitize it just to have it safe. And we actually have a backup system. The state of Alabama, the Universities here and the archives and libraries have something called ADP Net, which is a lock system, a model that’s used all around the world that was developed here in Alabama. Everybody thinks of us as backward and just now getting electricity and wi-fi, but actually we’re one of the top thirty-five schools in the nation in digitization.
ET: Was there anything else that really surprised you?
DC: Chills went down my spine when I saw certain things. I will say that there are things we have not released as of yet that are amazing. We’ve got one photograph of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King that we have not released, but I guarantee you, when we do, it will be iconic.
ET: The one photo you have of Martin Luther King at the podium is pretty striking.
DC: It is, isn’t it? That shadow thing is pretty cool. And that shadow is still on us, you know? That was P.H. Polk who did that, probably one of the best African American photographers who’s ever been. I have with me right now one of the ladies that’s helping me to process the collection and find these things, and what they’re able to do is amazing in its own right. We’ve been very fortunate to have alumni and people who worked here to come and help us. Two ladies in particular, Miss Lanice Middleton and Miss Shirley Curry, have helped us at great lengths to find these treasures.
ET: When you think about where you want these materials to go, and what studies you want them to inspire, what comes to mind?
DC: My thrust is to make sure the academic community gets this material so they can write about it, examine it. But I also want the public to have access to this. Hopefully, like the King speech, these materials can help to heal. That’s why I said it’s very apropos to today and that’s one of the places where we’re hopeful. I just submitted my second year report to CIC about what we’ve done and how this material is affecting lives already and it’s amazing what it’s doing.
KA: Can you give us an example?
DC: Yeah, I have three students who are working on their theses. And they are all working off the audio tapes right now.
ET: A lot of the speeches that we see, we only get the text transcripts, not the delivery. The delivery makes such a difference.
DC: It does!
ET: And are they talking about that at all in their papers, the tenor of these?
DC: Yes, they are. One of the students is talking about the words that are used. He’s looking into that, and it’s really interesting how politics and the church go hand in hand at that time. He’s really going into some groundbreaking work with this. And I’m finding it refreshing. And you did make a good comment that I want everyone to realize: how impassioned these speeches are. When you read something you don’t get the inflections, you don’t get where the emphasis is. We can put in all the exclamation points we want, but that doesn’t always answer the question.