As the Curator of African American Collections at Emory’s Rose Library, Dr. Pellom McDaniels III worked to bring these collections to the public in order to highlight the lives and contributions of African Americans. A year-long project, Lift Every Voice 2020 began with his idea that Reconstruction was “a time of great possibility” for African Americans, and its primary objective is to illuminate the rich history of Reconstruction to the public in order to deepen the public’s understanding how African Americans envisioned citizenship for themselves and how they worked to bring these dreams to life. To this end, the project sharpens the focus on the experiences, thoughts, and actions of African Americans to reveal how different people conceived of citizenship differently and how abundant, diverse, and sometimes conflicting were the approaches and projects taken on by people to create better lives for themselves and for others.
The original plans for this project included K-12 educational materials drawing upon the Rose Library’s collections, a social media campaign to circulate information about the lesser-known history of Reconstruction, and a number of public exhibitions and collaborative events. One such event took place on Emory’s main campus on February 14, Frederick Douglass’s birthday. Lift Every Voice collaborated with other organizations, including the Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement, the Center for Civic and Community Engagement, and Emory’s Graduation Generation community outreach partners, to host a reading by Emory students of Douglass’s 1883 speech entitled “The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free.” Students, faculty, staff, and visitors from across campus came to hear the speech, view photographs and manuscript items from the Library’s collections, and spread the word about this history by sharing their experiences on social media and visiting the Rose Library to learn more about the collections.
As the date of Douglass’s speech shows, for African Americans, the project of reconstructing the U.S. after emancipation extended beyond the end of Congressional Reconstruction in 1877. Their collective actions, experiences, and writings broaden the timeline of Reconstruction in either direction; the work of dreaming about what citizenship would look like began long before the Civil War even began, and the work of fighting for equal rights has continued long after government Reconstruction ended. Extending the dates of Reconstruction allows us to focus on actions and events that are, in Pellom’s words, “meaningful for the community of people whose ideas about themselves and their nation were being reformed.”
Central to this project is education. Pellom believed that highlighting individuals whose work may have been less visible but had broader influence would provide a “fresh approach” to teaching the history of Reconstruction. The project would also show how a seemingly disparate group of archival records can “collectively…show advancement and the directions of projects coming out of Reconstruction.” For example, he explained how records of the activities of black fraternal orders during this time “show support for social welfare programs that were still needed but not necessarily supported by the government.” The project will continue to revolve around aspects of daily life that shaped the fight for citizenship such as education, politics, religion, arts, medicine, international activism, publishing, business, military service, and local, national, and international organizations.
The project also supports a deeper understanding of the significant number of barriers to citizenship during this time and how people worked to overcome them. The papers of self-emancipated William H. Scott, for instance, reveal a growing chasm between emancipation and the realization of civil rights. Scott escaped slavery, obtained an advanced education, and embarked on a career of teaching, ministry, military service, and activism. He accomplished these feats against a number of odds, including the constant threat of racial violence and whites’ resistance to political and social reforms that would benefit people of color. The value of including histories of violence, segregation, poverty, and civic exclusion, Pellom felt, was not to allow these histories to obscure the accomplishments of African Americans, but “to show the challenges faced” that we may comprehend the weight and force of their actions. Thus, how people represented themselves and their communities remains a key element of his conception of this project. In his words, the project examines how people like Scott “define[d] this new era through actions that defined what you would be, could be.”
As members of the Lift Every Voice 2020 team, we will continue this year-long project, despite the constraints placed on some of our plans by the current pandemic, in the spirit with which Pellom began it, in the hopes that his vision will continue to spark conversations about this important period in history and its legacies today.