A Black archivist in Pittsburgh, at the crossroads of Black history

Someday we’re going to have to explain all of this. 

The pandemic. The lockdowns. The 21st century breadlines. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. The peaceful protests and restive ones that swept our country and region. How a “silent spring” became a “summer of rage.” How 2020 became a contender for “worst year in modern American history” less than halfway through. 

I, too, pause before the enormity of that task, wondering how anyone conveys this reality to someone who didn’t live through it. Maybe we’ll just have to show them. 

Months of crisis like this, naturally, produce a torrent of ephemera — some of it on the lighter side and some of it much more grim. As much of it as possible is being gathered by archivists at the Senator John Heinz History Center, where items are still being collected from the mass murder at Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. 

Physical objects related to the Tree of Life attack are pictured in storage at the Heinz History Center. (📸: Courtesy of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center)

Yes, it is daunting work — especially this year, which still has a presidential election in store, and especially when you know the trauma you’re cataloguing firsthand. 

“I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I can speak for myself,” said Sam Black, director of African American Programs and a related archive at the history center. “And it is very overwhelming for me as an African-American man who has a 17-year-old son. He and I talk because there’s a lot I want to teach him, basically how to survive in this society. In conversations I’ve had with other African-American men, it’s always in the back of our mind: When is my day going to come? At some point you kind of feel like — it’s almost like you’re a sitting duck.” 

Black continued: “You can’t ignore what is going on in the world and how that directly impacts you. So even in my professional life, I can’t leave my personal life behind as if it’s unattached. It is attached.” 

Black has shared this with colleagues. He also wrote this “statement of solidarity” concluding “Our endless work to preserve and interpret our region’s African American history tells us that these recent killings are not isolated incidents.”  

The underlying urgency of these 2020 collections comes from the speed the world has taken on, the sheer volume of “artifacts” being produced in our digital age, the immediate and obvious significance of this American chapter, and the archiving failures of the past.  

Matthew Strauss, chief archivist at the history center, said sparse records from the 1918 Spanish Flu — when Pittsburgh held the highest per capita death rate in the nation — are now something of a cautionary tale. 

“We didn’t have a lot,” he said of artifacts from that pandemic. “One idea is that the 1918 flu kind of happened while World War I was going on. I also personally think archives weren’t as proactive about collecting in real time and documenting real-time events as they are now. (…) We wanted to make sure a gap like that didn’t occur again.” 

Photos from the history center’s pandemic collection. (📸: Courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center)

Black said the same, and while there are civil rights struggles and movements depicted in the archives already, Black wonders how much more robust and complete those depictions could be.  

“When Jonny Gammage was killed (in 1995), we have almost nothing at the history center related to that. (…) I’ve been talking about this kind of thing for a number of years now. I said we need to be more focused on doing things and collecting the history of social protest going all the way back to the Occupy Wall Street situation where we didn’t really step up to collect.”  

Black added: “It’s also a question of what we’re focused on and what should we be focused on. If we call ourselves a people’s museum, what people are we talking about?”  

Just as the history center crowdsourced parts of its collection on the massacre at Tree of Life, it is now asking the public for donations of pandemic keepsakes and soon those related to the local protests now well into their second week. 

Strauss counts 25 gigabytes of digital “artifacts” related to the novel coronavirus pandemic in western Pennsylvania so far — photos of homemade masks, shuttered businesses and parks, empty store shelves, empty city streets at rush hour, and socially distant holy days; all to add to a growing trove of online news reports and archived websites and first-hand accounts from Uber drivers, health care workers, mail carriers, and more. 

“We had the framework and adapted to the current crisis,” Strauss explained. “And it was pretty immediately clear that we had to do something. (…) We realized this was a once-in-a-century occurrence.” 

The Senator John Heinz History Center. (📸: Courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center)

As for the protests that followed, Black’s collection work is only just beginning. For now, he’s reaching out to activists individually in an effort to mine material. He said he plans to open it up to the public as soon as next week.

He’s also drafting a new set of guidelines for collections like this one, highlighting the new ethical and legal challenges that come with artifact collecting at a time when social media posts and amateur images so often need to be included.  

“Things are much more complicated than 30 or 40 years ago,” Black explained. “We can’t just close our eyes and collect materials like we have been.” 

He’s also aware that this unusually eventful year is likely no bookend.

“I tell my colleagues this is long-term, not short-term. Although the demonstrations may be over by the end of the summer, we don’t know what the next tragedy is going to be. We might have thought Ferguson was the end of it, and then Antwon Rose happened. We live in a society at a time when hostilities are at a fever pitch and anything can be the next major tragedy and the next cause for protest. And we need to be ready for the next phase or the next event — even if we hope it never happens.” 

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