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Schlesinger Library Acquires the Angela Y. Davis Papers

"Free Angela" and "Free Angela Davis" buttons.
Photo by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute

Angela Y. Davis is one of the foremost figures in the struggle for human rights and against racial discrimination in the United States, and a foundational thinker in African American feminism.

Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library announced in February its acquisition of the papers of the prominent political activist and pioneering feminist thinker Angela Y. Davis. The resources of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research were crucial to securing this landmark acquisition. 

“We are honored that Professor Angela Y. Davis chose the Schlesinger Library to be the permanent repository for a remarkable collection documenting a remarkable life,” Jane Kamensky, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library, said at the time. “The Angela Y. Davis Papers capture the many facets of her impact on the history of the United States and will enable researchers to recover new histories of topics ranging from black liberation and black feminism, to Frankfurt School social theory, to the rise and fall of the Communist Party in America, to the growth of mass incarceration and the prison abolition movement.”

Widely regarded as the finest archival collection for research on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library has received more than 150 cartons of unique and rare materials from Davis, including correspondence, photographs, unpublished speeches, teaching materials, organizational records, and audio from the radio show Angela Speaks. Davis’s incarceration and trial and the global “Free Angela” campaign are especially well documented by materials such as personal writings, transcripts, letters received in prison, and banners used in “Free Angela” marches around the world. 

“My papers reflect 50 years of involvement in activist and scholarly collaborations seeking to expand the reach of justice in the world,” says Davis. “I am very happy that at the Schlesinger Library they will join those of June Jordan, Patricia Williams, Pat Parker, and so many other women who have been advocates of social transformation.”

Davis’s long-standing commitment to prisoners’ rights dates to her involvement in the campaign to free three California inmates known as the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of killing a prison guard during a riot at Soledad Prison in California’s Central Valley. Davis, just 26 years old, emerged as a leader of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, which galvanized the American left, including such disparate figures as James Baldwin, Jane Fonda, Jessica Mitford, and Jean Genet. Davis’s activism in the Soledad Brothers’ behalf led to her own arrest and imprisonment. In 1970, she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges and was the subject of an intense police search that drove her underground and culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent US history. During her 16-month incarceration, the “Free Angela” campaign was organized, leading to her acquittal in 1972.

“Angela Y. Davis has played a major role in American political and philosophical thought for the last half century,” says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center. “I remember being inspired to take a philosophy class at Yale when I learned that her mentor, Herbert Marcuse, had called her his most brilliant student. Her consistent concern to ameliorate the conditions of the most unfortunate among us has inspired generations of students to commit their lives to service and scholarship. And her early calls for drastic prison reform have proven to be prophetic. Angela Davis’s archive will be studied for generations, and it is altogether fitting that the premier library on the history of women in America should house it.”

Schlesinger archivists have begun processing the collection, to which Davis will continue to add. The Angela Y. Davis Papers will be available for research by 2020.

“The acquisition of Angela Davis’s papers, documenting pivotal freedom struggles in the United States, Cuba, and the Middle East, makes the Schlesinger Library even more vital for all those seeking a deeper understanding of the history of oppression and resistance on a global scale,” says Elizabeth Hinton, an assistant professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard. Hinton will curate a public exhibition of key materials from the collection, which will coincide with a major conference on race, gender, and the carceral state, to be held at the Radcliffe Institute in the fall of 2019.

“Angela Y. Davis has lived her life lending her voice to those who could not speak for themselves,” says Kenvi Phillips, curator for race and ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library. “Her decision to preserve her papers with the Library ensures that she will perpetually speak against inherently unequal power structures. We are thrilled to be part of the process of carrying the voice for the voiceless to future generations.”

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