Hands on History: Reflections from an archive intern

Spending the fall 2017 semester working with the American Civil Liberty Union of Missouri’s archived records has offered me a truly unique opportunity to examine the history of an American institution. The American Civil Liberties Union was present for almost the entirety of the twentieth century, taking part in the defense of civil liberties in times of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of digital surveillance. While the cataloging of this material required a certain level of patience in looking through each meeting agenda and conference report, getting the opportunity to view history in real time is something that will leave a lasting mark on my academic life.

Reflection on my internship

While the day-to-day history of the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee (SLCLC), and later the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, was interesting in its own ways, my favorite part of the experience was seeing the material reported on historical events that I have studied in my own courses. In some cases, there was only a passing reference to an event that we know today turned out to be monumental.

One example of that was a brief reference to the Emmett Till case: a fourteen year old African American boy who was beaten to death and lynched in Mississippi while on vacation there from Chicago to see family. The case was a harrowing example of the injustices present in the 20th century for any African American victim seeking the conviction of white perpetrators. While the SLCLC’s files did not contain any extensive information on the case, it did reference it in a list of “current events” in civil liberties violations, as the two white men who were let off for the crime admitted their guilt shortly afterward with no repercussions. In my studies, the Till case stood as a hallmark of the inequities of the justice system not only in the twentieth century, but today as well.

Another example of the SLCLC’s, and later the ACLU-EM’s, records as repositories of significant historical events is the Loving case. Recently made very famous by a Hollywood film adaptation of the story, the case of Richard and Mildred Loving in Virginia changed the course of interracial marriage and miscegenation laws in the United States. Getting to see reports on the case from the perspective of the ACLU-EM was incredibly exciting, as their records evolve day by day to relay information about the case in (almost) real time. Getting to follow history along with those who experienced it first hand is a truly remarkable opportunity for any student studying, or even interested in, history.

image of memo

ACLU news release regarding marriage laws in Virginia, 1966 (read full release)

The Narrative of Archives

Overall, my time spent in the archives allowed me to gain a significant understanding of exactly what archives do for organizations. They are not simply repositories of information, but narratives of institutional and organizational histories. These archives represent the created history of the ACLU-MO, from the first constitution of the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee to its final label as the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. The experience of getting to catalogue and examine these materials has opened my eyes to the intricacies of not only organizations, but of archival research as well.

Archives force scholars to ask critical questions about how historical narratives are created and essentialized through the construction of archives, and how those narratives should inform their own work. Through my work this semester with the ACLU-MO, I believe I’ve gotten a better understanding of those critical questions, how to approach archival research, and how organizations are created and altered over time.

2 female students seated

Saoirse Hahn and Wendy Lu, Fall 2017 interns with Special Collections and the ACLU of Missouri.

In 2017 a collaborative academic internship program was formed with Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections and the ACLU of Missouri.   In preparation for the ACLU’s centennial in 2020, students are working to better describe and document the local affiliate’s earliest history.  Student interested in more information, including openings and eligibility, can contact Miranda Rectenwald mrectenwald [at] wustl.edu or Daniela Velazquez dvelazquez [at] aclu-mo.org

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.