The Chicago Defender is a historically significant black newspaper and a bastion of black intellect and activism since 1905. So Robert Sengstacke, heir to the newspaper’s founding family, knew that his disorganized boxes of artifacts from over a century of paper’s existence contained something important. The New York Times explains that he called on Jacqueline Goldsby, Associate Professor in the Department of English and an expert on the history of black culture:
On a sweltering day two summers ago, a University of Chicago scholar, Jacqueline Goldsby, began to dig through a maze of cardboard boxes crammed to the ceiling in a loft on Ogden Avenue. As she peeked inside the boxes, bulging with hidden remnants from The Chicago Defender, the famed black newspaper, she gasped.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ There were photos of Booker T. Washington playing with his grandchildren, there were letters from Harry Truman,” said Dr. Goldsby, 47. “Every time I opened a box, I found something of historical significance.”
There is no question that the artifacts are valuable. The Chicago Sun-Times writes that the “Defender collection has long been coveted by such national institutions as Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute, which had sought to buy it.” But in spite of their value on the auction block, Mr. Sengstacke donated the artifacts to the Chicago Public Library. They will be on display as part of the Vivian Harsh collection of African-American history at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (95th and Halsted). The University of Chicago Library has agreed to maintain a digital archive of the collection.
Goldsby greeted members of the press at Woodson Library on Wednesday to unveil the collection. In her remarks, she said, “I’m humbled by the lessons this collection has to teach us. I hope that my students and I will continue to pursue intellectual projects that make higher learning accessible beyond the academy’s walls.”
For more information, see the University of Chicago’s feature story, which also contains videos of Goldsby and others talking about the project.
Update: see the Wednesday unveiling with Mayor Daley, Prof. Goldsby, and some of the artifacts in this ABC television news clip.
Update 6/4/09: The Chicago Tribune adds that the archive includes several home movies of these influential voices for black rights: “Much of the film in the collection was deteriorating, but the archivists at Harsh and the University of Chicago’s Mapping the Stacks project, which Goldsby directs, were able to save many of the movies and transfer them to DVD.” Learn more about Mapping the Stacks at http://mts.lib.uchicago.edu/.