Falling in Love with a Space

Historian Holly Ellis
This photograph by Judith Sedwick of the trade union activist Maida Springer Kemp was part of the Women of Courage exhibit, based on the Black Women Oral History Project. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryThis photograph by Judith Sedwick of the trade union activist Maida Springer Kemp was part of the Women of Courage exhibit, based on the Black Women Oral History Project. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Holly Ellis, Dorothy Porter and Charles Wesley Harris Fellow, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research

Is it possible to fall in love with a space? I would not have thought so until I arrived at the Schlesinger Library, in late January. I am a Dorothy Porter and Charles Wesley Harris Fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, here from the University of Birmingham (UK) to complete thesis research. My thesis, titled “Breaking the Binaries of Empire: West African and African American Women’s Interactions, 1930–1960,” focuses on the transatlantic networks that existed among a group of elite West African and African American women. These networks facilitated an exchange of ideas concerning womanhood, Pan-African and nationalist politics, and the position of women of the “darker” races in a world structured around ideas of European racial superiority. The collections at the Schlesinger offer a unique window onto these women’s interactions, their political work, and—most interesting to me—their friendships, which lasted lifetimes and shaped their conceptions of one another and the world at large.

My experience with archives as a historian of African women is one of deafening silences. The colonial records held at both the British and Ghanaian National Archives are unsurprisingly lacking in African women’s experiences. I am well versed in having to use nontraditional sources while assembling the crumbs of archival mentions into narratives. I say this to communicate my delight in arriving at the Schlesinger. Imagine my joy to be in a space in which women’s voices are valued and, more important, easily accessible.

I found myself, for the first time, in the enviable position of having too many collections to work through. I initially intended only to mine the papers of Shirley Graham Du Bois, focusing on her time in Ghana and the work she did with women’s groups there. After I consulted the collection, however, it quickly became apparent that these papers were just the beginning. I have been using the Maida Springer Kemp collection and the papers of Caroline and Olivia Phelps-Stokes. All these collections contain invaluable insights about the relationships that were created through diasporic transatlantic networks. These narratives complicate the largely androcentric metanarrative of Pan-Africanism and nationalism. By far the most valuable and exciting source I have consulted is the Black Women Oral History Project interviews, 1976–1981. The ability to hear—to really hear—the voices of the women in whose lives I have been so interested is an almost indescribable privilege.

But it is not just the collections that make this library so special; it is the physical space—a space in which women’s history is treasured and respected. After the closure of the Women’s Library in London, in 2013, something I found personally upsetting, it is emotionally and spiritually uplifting to be in a place where I am among peers and colleagues who share a belief in the importance of women’s history. To be working alongside scholars who are actively engaged in the political process of putting women’s narratives back into the historical record has led to the most productive and rewarding research of my relatively short career.

Search Year: 
2014