Friday, April 6, 2018

Archives and Dumping Grounds

My post today is about “archives.” I use scare quotes deliberately here because searching for evidence of black plaintiffs in civil suits in the pre-Civil War U.S. South took me far away from the types of archives I had used in the past. Trial court cases from Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes in Louisiana and Adams and Claiborne counties in Mississippi between (roughly) 1800 and 1860 represent the bulk of the research materials for Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South. These court cases, however, are not obtainable in any traditional archive. They are not published and searchable online or available in a climate-controlled repository such as the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Instead, they remain in the possession of the county clerks of the courts’ offices and have not been processed, cleaned, or organized. In some places they are stored indoors in boxes and vaults (often tri-folded and wrapped in the same materials they were placed in 150-200 years ago); in other places they sit in basements without heat or air conditioning and fire or flood protection. Sometimes they are even unprotected from the elements.
Photo by the author
Some years ago, for instance, I found several boxes of cases in a storage shed on the outskirts of Plaquemine, Louisiana, where the clerk's office kept old personnel files and discarded office materials. It was raining the day I went there, and water had flooded the shed. The boxes that held these cases and several hundred others from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had rotted and the files were strewn all over the dirt floor. They were covered in bug goo and feces, by the way, and one of the boxes had a dead rat in it (I will admit to screaming when I saw this, and the woman from the clerk’s office laughed at me and told a story about the type of things she found while hunting on her family's land). They were also mislabeled and placed into county personnel files from the mid-20th century. I gathered six leaf bags full of legal records, brought them back to the clerk’s office, dried them out, cleaned them off, and relabeled and filed them as best I could (sadly not in acid free files; the clerk's office couldn’t afford it).
Photo by the author
The records were well worth the effort, not least of all because many involved criminal actions against free blacks and slaves (in many Louisiana parishes the criminal records from this period are long gone, and while my project examined civil cases I wanted to take read and photograph them for comparative as well as preservation purposes). They also included estate records from free black families dating back to the 1770s. I took digital photographs of everything, and I am glad I did. When I went back a few years later to do more research, I could not find the files.
Photo by the author
            Researching in these records often means facing situations in which you might be uncomfortable (dead rats are only part of the story): like being in a pitch dark and cramped vault with nothing but a pen light because a storm has knocked out the power (this happened more than once). Or being in a basement on a Friday afternoon sifting through cases and suddenly realizing that all of the employees have left for the weekend and you are now locked in that basement (happily, this only happened once. After that I left a note on the basement door so that someone knew I was down there). It is also sometimes difficult to explain to the clerk’s office employees what you need and why you need it. Many did not know they had records dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Others might be reluctant to let you look at them systematically (rather than requesting one case at a time). I got lucky when a family member living in the region called a local judge on my behalf, and this judge called on friends in the clerks' offices and asked them to give me unrestricted access. This was incredibly generous, because I could search things as a sort of honorary employee: I could go into their restricted areas and examine all of the extant cases; I was given a space to work for months at a time; I was not charged for copies and given permission to photograph anything I wanted; I even had access to the employee break rooms and often ate my lunch (and king cake!) with the others. It was at one of these lunches, incidentally, that I found out about the existence of the records in the Plaquemine storage shed.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Kim:
Great post. As a professional archivist, a former law librarian, and someone who actually served on a Texas state task force involved in reviewing local court records in Texas a few years ago, I can say that the situation at times, but not all the time, is the same in Texas.

The preservation of local archival records requires an advocate, because of competing demands on county/parish folks, and because folks without the expertise needed "think" you can just store the records, and they take care of themselves. That has never been the case, for paper, vellum, or microfilm records, and especially not now for digital records. It takes the proper conditions, care, staff, supplies, equipment and money.

In Texas, thanks to the engaged State Archives, new laws and policies for the preservation of local records were past due to our efforts, and a light was shone on the already existing local filing fee passed about ten years before then and intended for the preservation of the records, which some counties were using for "preservation" items like office computers, and others were just banking the money, or using it for other county purposes.

If the state, in the form of the State Archives can't help, then meeting with, educating, advocating for the records, including with donations, and sometimes as a last resort, even embarrassing local officials, is what is usually needed in my experience.

Thanks for shining a light on the archival records of our neighboring states. I hope you stick with it!

Professional archivist