Josh Schonwald
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

I was so excited and daunted by the opportunity—and responsibility—to take on this collection as part of Mapping the Stacks’ work, that I spent that entire class session sinking to the bottom of the p”
—Jacqueline Goldsby
Associate Professor in English Language and Literature

Throughout the sweltering summer of 2006, Jacqueline Goldsby, Associate Professor in English Language and Literature, toiled away in an attic full of treasures—an unairconditioned loft in Chicago’s West Loop, piled high with the personal and professional documents of the family that founded America’s pre-eminent black newspaper, the Chicago Defender.

Day after day, as she uncovered new finds of historic importance, Goldsby talked with owner and heir Robert A. Sengstacke on how to protect this amazing collection. Rather than competing to acquire the collection on behalf of the University, Goldsby focused on making it available to the widest number of people possible, and keeping it in the Defender’s hometown.

Experts from the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center counseled Sengstacke on the ways such a collection might be housed. Goldsby inventoried to assess the research value of its contents. Ultimately the University of Chicago Library agreed to create and maintain a database of the collection’s contents and a digital archive of its 4,000 images.

Those labors bore fruit when Sengstacke announced he was donating his family’s massive collection to the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History. In a ceremony Wednesday, May 27, at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Mayor Richard Daley and others lauded one of the most significant collections of African American history in the nation.

In Her Own Words

Goldsby took the occasion to talk about some of the work that had made it possible:

“There were nearly 100 boxes of all sizes and shapes stored on racks that ran the width and length of a very large and very humid West Loop loft. Mr. Sengstacke knew this setup was dangerous … the loft’s uncontrolled temperatures threatened his family’s history: Inks would fade and make letters, speeches, photographs, and other paper-based manuscripts illegible; the sweltering summer heat would warp, bend, and undoubtedly turn whole swaths of files brittle and worse, unusable. …

“My first day on the job, those boxes’ contents left me awestruck. I saw the original certificates of incorporation, which legally established the Chicago Defender as a privately owned entity in 1905. I read John H. Sengstacke’s letters to President Harry Truman urging him to champion the cause of desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces, and I skimmed the transcripts of the federal hearings, which followed Sengstacke’s request.

“Photographs of Robert Abbott and Booker T. Washington, which I’d never seen in any publications about both men, left me speechless; as did images of the Sengstackes and their friends or family—I didn’t know which—at the Kentucky Derby horse race. That photograph, obviously taken in the 1940s, in the Deep South, when Jim Crow segregation was at its repressive heights, left me stunned by the Sengstackes’ courage to move about the world as they pleased. … When Mr. Sengstacke pulled out several cartons packed with Super 8 film boxes, I had seen enough—too much—for one day.

“I carried a huge, throbbing headache with me to my swimming class later that evening. I was so excited and daunted by the opportunity—and responsibility—to take on this collection as part of Mapping the Stacks’ work, that I spent that entire class session sinking to the bottom of the pool. I am not joking, nor do I mean to pun when I say that I felt history’s weight on my shoulders that day. …

“We all agreed that it should be placed in a public repository. The question was where? In Chicago, or in a “national” archive on the East Coast?

“I couldn’t make an argument against selling the collection. Just because black history is priceless, doesn’t mean its value should be taken for granted. I could defend the idea of keeping the collection here in Chicago, though…

“Researchers would go anywhere to use the papers. But Chicago’s local communities would stream in to use the collection year-round. For instance, the city’s “Metro History Fair,” which brings junior high- and high school-aged students into local archives to research and prepare term papers, would no doubt be thrilled to encourage students to use the Abbott-Sengstacke Collection for their work.

“Local news media, filmmakers, artists, and other culture-makers could use the collection’s vintage materials in their visual works. The city’s colleges and universities would send a steady stream of undergraduates and graduate students to research the collection for their class assignments in American and African American studies…

“Five students worked on the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers exclusively for 18 months. Celeste Moore, Traci Parker, and Marcia Walker organized the manuscripts and memorabilia of the collection. Doron Galili and Christina Petersen processed the moving image collection…

“The University of Chicago Library made a set of astonishing contributions to this work as well. … In a truly groundbreaking agreement, the University of Chicago’s Library will create and maintain a digital archive, which will house a large selection of the 4,000 photographs that are a part of the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers… I can’t stress the significance of this contribution enough: the University of Chicago Library has committed to the Chicago Public Library that it will maintain the digital archive of the Abbott-Sengstacke Family photographs in perpetuity. Forever. Last I heard, forever was a mighty long time…

The collection’s availability affirms what I, as an academic and as a faculty member of the University of Chicago, understand my life’s work to be: to recover and understand the traditions and ideas that enable and describe human endeavor in the world. As they are chronicled in this collection, the lives and careers of Robert Abbott, John Sengstacke, and Myrtle Sengstacke will change how we understand African American—and, indeed, American—family life, journalism, and politics over the course of the 20th century.”

Originally published on May 27, 2009.