“Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.
What happens when a large box of cassette tapes and a double cassette player is placed on your desk in the processing area at MARBL? You plug in your head phones and are immediately transported into tent revivals, symposiums from the 1970’s on black opera music and Pan-Africanism. You hear the voice of the founder of gospel music, Thomas Dorsey, explaining his artistic process, minstrel radio shows from the 1920’s, inspired preaching at black churches, spirituals, classical compositions, hymns and funeral services. You are lost in a world of vintage sounds. I imagine Geneva Southall carrying her tape recorder everywhere to document her life as a music educator. On some of the tapes, you can hear her laughing loudly in response to a speaker’s humorous comment at a symposium on gospel music, interviewing artists, adjusting the microphone gently and breathing quietly. Geneva Southall was an award-winning musician, educator and author. The first woman to earn a PhD in piano performance from the University of Iowa, she taught at both the University of South Carolina and the University of Minnesota.
One of the beautiful things about archival research is how we can reconstruct a person’s life story through the objects they have collected. We are allowed a unique opportunity to look in and re-discover through a different set of eyes. As I process the audio-visual materials in this collection I am searching for any clues that will give insight into the date, time and place of the recording. Out of a box of 97 tapes, more than half are unlabeled, so it’s important that these treasures are identified for future researchers to dive in effectively. I am honored to be on the other end of the head phones. I don’t believe in coincidence, so I feel that the stars have aligned correctly allowing me to be the student worker on this particular assignment.
I am a seminary student with a great interest in black church worship, spirituals and preaching. I will be taking a summer course on Black Church Worship in August. The course will examine the history of spirituals, hymns and the importance of worship in the development of the Black Church in America. As I listen to the extensive research on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, slave work songs and spirituals on freedom, I am reminded of the importance of archival research. I am excited to share this collection with my professor, Dr. Abbington and my classmates this summer. I am in my own world in these headphones as I hear “Precious Lord” being played on a piano. I am so grateful to Dr. Geneva Southall for her careful recording and for adding to this history.