The Path of the Archivist: Jehan Sinclair

Jehan C. Sinclair. Photo by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe InstituteJehan C. Sinclair. Photo by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute
By Pat Harrison

Growing up in Florida, the daughter of an aeronautical engineer (her father) and human resources professional (her mother), Jehan Sinclair was encouraged to pursue a career as a doctor or a lawyer. “My parents didn’t consider the humanities a career path,” she says. But that’s the trail she began to follow.

Throughout middle and high school, Sinclair discovered many African American writers—including Zora Neale Hurston—whose depictions of folk life and black communities entranced her. “I really enjoyed literature and initially wanted to be an English teacher or a writer,” she says.

At New College of Florida, in Sarasota, Sinclair majored in anthropology—not realizing at first that her favorite author, Hurston, had also been an anthropologist. During this time, she became fascinated with historical archaeology and material culture. “I was interested in the way objects can tell a story about our history,” she says. Sinclair set her sights on becoming a museum curator—until, that is, she learned about library and information science and archives. “The idea of making information and history more accessible to people in libraries appealed to me,” she says.

When she shopped around for graduate schools, Sinclair discovered Simmons College and its master’s program in library and information science. “I could have taken classes online,” she says, “but I figured now was the perfect time to experience a different area.” That was in 2014.

At Simmons, she learned about the Schlesinger Library’s vast archives pertaining to women’s history and knew she wanted to learn more about them. She landed a job at the library as a part-time cataloging assistant. Then, in September 2016, she began working there full time on a three-year appointment, during which she holds two fellowships: one from Harvard’s Administrative Fellowship Program, which attracts talented professionals, especially from historically underrepresented groups, to leadership opportunities and careers in higher education; and a HistoryMakers fellowship. The latter is a collaboration among three libraries—Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library; Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library; and the Schlesinger—to provide support for three archivists working on African American archives across the country.

Sinclair spends her days working on the Schlesinger’s backlog of unprocessed African American collections. For example, she’s preparing container lists (also known as box lists) for the large collection of family papers that Patricia Williams, the 2017–2018 Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation fellow at Radcliffe, is donating to the Schlesinger. The Williams collection, which covers more than 100 years of African American family life, currently includes 50 containers with more to come, Sinclair says. Her lists specify the materials inside each box, such as letters, photographs, and marriage certificates. She will continue preparing these lists until Williams completes her donation, at which time processing will begin.

During her time at the library, Sinclair has processed eight collections of African American papers (see below). She also spends time spreading the word about archives. “I’m passionate about archival outreach,” she says. “Working in archives and museums and libraries isn’t a career option that most kids think about.” Sinclair and her colleague Amber Moore, also an archivist, give virtual career day presentations for schools online.

When her three-year appointment is up, Sinclair hopes to stay on at the Schlesinger. “I love working here,” she says. “I get to work with amazing collections.”

African American Collections Processed by Jehan Sinclair

Papers of Gwendolyn C. Baker: educator, professor, activist, and nonprofit executive known for developing the concept of multicultural education

Papers of Robin W. Kilson: professor, historian, and former Bunting fellow who organized the first conference for black women professors and scholars, titled “Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name, 1894–1994”

Papers of Linda A. Davis Watters: business executive, expert on insurance regulatory issues, and former CEO of Detroit Commerce Bank

Papers of Cleo F. Haley: convention secretary for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs

Papers of Beatrice Jeanette Whiting: Virginia native and lifelong schoolteacher

Biographical Files of the Black Women Oral History Project: additional biographical information about women interviewed for the Schlesinger Library’s Black Women Oral History Project

Papers of Hortense Carter Saxon: servant, housekeeper, and Harlem resident who worked in New York and Connecticut during the 1920s to support her family

Papers of Deborah Wolfe: educator, minister, and education chief for the United States House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor from 1962 to 1965

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