From anti-slavery collections to papers of early black alumni, library collections support Africana studies year-round

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This 1986 photo of students at the Urban Day School in Milwaukee, Wis., is from the records of the Institute for Independent Education. Copyright © Cornell University

February is Black History Month. Yet Cornell's library plays a year-round role supporting Africana studies with its wide array of resources that document the experiences of African-Americans.

Cornell played an early and key role in the preservation of abolitionist history. In 1870, Cornell President Andrew Dickson White acquired the complete library of his friend Samuel J. May, an abolitionist minister from Syracuse. Word of Cornell's acquisition spread among prominent abolitionists, many of whom contributed their personal papers to the library.

Now housed in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) in Kroch Library, many full-text documents and pamphlets from the May Anti-slavery Collection are also available online at

Later additions to RMC's holdings have continued to build upon White's acquisition. In 2002, Gail Gifford Rudin '56 and her husband, Stephen, donated a collection on slavery in America. The Rudin Anti-slavery Collection includes newspaper engravings, estate appraisals, wills, bills of sale, manumissions (documents of emancipation), correspondence and tax records documenting the sale, hire, purchase and debt payment of slaves. Some items from the collection are currently on display in the "New York, Slavery and the Fight for Freedom" exhibit at the Carol Tatkon Center in Balch Hall.

Students and researchers studying African-American history can also draw upon other library resources, such as the papers of early African-American alumnus Jerome Holland '39, M.S. '41, which are housed in the university archives. Holland was president of Delaware State College (1953-60), president of Hampton Institute (1960-70), ambassador to Sweden (1970-73), chairman of the American Red Cross and of Planned Parenthood, a director of the New York Stock Exchange and a Cornell presidential councillor and university trustee. His life and career are chronicled through correspondence, engagement calendars, reports, tape recordings, speeches, books and scrapbooks of clippings and photographs.

Little known are the papers of alumna Evie C. Spencer '18. After learning about Cornell from an alumna who was a grade school teacher in Manassas, Va., Spencer was determined to attend Cornell. She received a scholarship from Emily Howland and her niece Isabel Howland, two white women who were active in the struggle to extend the right to vote to blacks. Spencer's papers contain diaries, correspondence, memorandum booklets, photographs, diplomas and certificates, Cornell ephemera and alumni surveys.

Among the photos in the Spencer collection are images of Spencer with such friends and fellow students as Adelaide Cook Daly '18, daughter of Charles Chauveau Cook, A.B. 1890, and niece of Jane Eleanor Datcher, B.S. 1890, the first African-American graduates of Cornell. The collection also documents Spencer's days as a boarder at 411 E. State St., Ithaca, and the birthplace of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American intercollegiate fraternity.

Also in the collection are the papers of Victor Reginald Daly '19, who received the Croix de Guerre for his service in France during World War I. He later worked for the Urban League in New York and served as business manager of the Journal of Negro History. Daly's papers include a newspaper clipping about his family's successful lawsuit to receive service in a restaurant and a letter from a social worker expressing her admiration for their willingness to take their battle to the courts. Also in the collection is an album with photos of campus life at Cornell, as well as some 175 images that chronicle Daly's army training in 1917 in the first U.S. officer candidate class of African-Americans.

Last fall the library acquired the archival records of the Institute for Independent Education (IIE). Founded in Washington, D.C., in 1984 by the late Joan Davis Ratteray, IIE provided assistance to independent community-based schools, predominately owned and operated by African-Americans. This collection provides unique documentation of the Black Independent School Movement, including 200 brochures and other materials from schools, 430 photographs of the institute's activities, as well as IIE publications and correspondence from friends and critics. This collection complements other sources on the Black Independent School Movement housed in the Clarke Africana Library (

Petrina Jackson is assistant archivist in the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.


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