The Schlesinger Library announced a major acquisition this past February: the papers of the prominent political activist and pioneering feminist thinker Angela Y. Davis. The acquisition was made in collaboration with Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. A small team of Schlesinger librarians traveled to Davis’s home in California to pack the more than 150 cartons of unique and rare material, including correspondence, photographs, unpublished speeches, teaching materials, organizational records, and audio from the radio show Angela Speaks.
The announcement sparked interest in both local and national media, generating articles in outlets as varied as the Harvard Crimson and the Root. “The acquisition comes as scholars are telling a less male dominated, top-down story about the Black Power movement and the left in general,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times. “It also sheds light on the rise of intersectional feminism (which takes into account women’s overlapping identities) and the campaign against mass incarceration, to name two causes Prof. Davis helped pioneer before there were quite words for them.”
Davis herself expressed gratification at making the Schlesinger the final home of her papers. “My papers reflect 50 years of involvement in activist and scholarly collaborations seeking to expand the reach of justice in the world,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Speaking for the Library, Jane Kamensky, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director, said, “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.”
Davis is known as a leading figure in the struggle for human rights and against racial discrimination in the United States and a foundational thinker in African American feminism. Her 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 1970 riot at Soledad Prison in California’s Central Valley. Davis, then just 26, emerged as a leader of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, which galvanized the left, including such disparate figures as James Baldwin, Jane Fonda, Jean Genet, and Jessica Mitford. Her activism in the Soledad Brothers’ behalf led to her own arrest and imprisonment. She was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list on false charges, becoming 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, a massive international “Free Angela” campaign was organized. She was acquitted in 1972.
“Angela Y. Davis has lived her life lending her voice to those who could not speak for themselves,” says Kenvi Phillips, the Schlesinger’s curator for race and ethnicity, who was among those who traveled to Davis’s home. “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.”
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.