In Search of a Black Woman’s Archives

It was my third time viewing Geraldine Wilson’s Papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Crumbled in the bottom of box 3, belonging to no folder, I found this small piece of paper, a medical record. The diagnosis”breast ca.” Breast Cancer. I wonder what that day meant to Geraldine, what came to her mind, who did she call first? At the time, I’ve researched her life for about three years, I knew that she passed away in 1986 at the age of 55, but the cause remained unknown to me until that moment. Instead of scanning through Head Start literature, I begin to flip through each page. Her battle with cancer was always before me, just in unexpected places. Buried in Head Start curricula was a newspaper article about natural remedies to defeat cancer. In her poetry, she wrote about the scars and metal plates that replaced her breasts. As this research became the focus of my dissertation, I asked her friends about her battle with cancer. One recall the moment she departed this life. She described it as peaceful and that three gods appeared to another friend in his sleep to say that she made it home.

As I write Geraldine’s biography, I often pause on my archival section where I write about my sources, the archives I consult, and my archival practices. As I continously search for this Black woman’s archive, she appears on cassette tapes, on panels with Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Betty Shabazz, and in the studio of Sesame Street as they seek the best way to represent Black families on television. Yet despite the many places she appeared, there are great silences, some physically shoved to the bottom of a box or accidentally misplaced in work papers. Silences about her personal relationships only revealed through the gossip of friends. Papers she ensured never found their way into the archive. I must grapple with the construction of her papers, how they found their way into the Schomburg Center, and Wilson’s “eclectic archive.”

In Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, Tanisha Ford referenced the “eclectic archive” she assembled in her study of Black women and style. I think many of us who study the lives of Black women encounter such rich archives. Wilson’s archival papers not only share her educational work, but these eighteen boxes are poems and writings of her childhood, her womanhood, and her Blackness. Within these papers are her scrapbooks filled with newspaper articles detailing civil rights matter across Jim Crow America in the 1960s. One headline that caught my eye was “Rights Workers Still Missing” from The Student Voice, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) newspaper. It was published in June 1964, just a few months before she traveled to Mississippi with SNCC to work with Freedom Schools and Tougaloo College. For over twenty years she kept the newspaper and other articles documenting the movement for herself to always remember.

I searched and found various photographs within and beyond her collection. Wilson’s collection holds images of unknown families, perhaps relatives or closed friends, and children, perhaps her niece or many godchildren. Other photographs depict her as a child, as a college student, as an activist, and as a teacher. Photographs carry their own history—what we see, what we perceived, what they see, what they perceived, and wanted to convey. They always brings me back to Tina Campt’s words and praxis in reading, listening, and asking questions to the images I incorporate into my dissertation chapters. They don’t simply add visuals to accompany the text or a break from the words, but they tell their own story and history. Why did she keep such photographs? Why did she donate them to the archives, all featuring unidentifiable people?

“The question of why a photograph was made involves understanding the social, cultural, and historical relationships figured in the image, as well as a larger set of relationships outside and beyond the frame—relationships we might think of as the social life of the photo.”

Tina Campt, Images Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 6.

I find pieces of Wilson’s archive in the homes of her friends. Following an interview with her friend and colleague, Marj, I ask for a tour of her home in Florence, South Carolina. We walked into her living room and before me stood a large wall full of a Black art. “This one,” she told pointed out to me, “Romare Bearden gifted this to Gerry after she wrote an article about his work.” To Jerry, Bearden signed on the bottom of the print. She showed me a purple scarf that belonged to Geraldine, who loved to wear any and every color Marj shared.

Newspaper articles.
Census records.
City directories.
Black Feminist Working Groups papers.

All comprise a rich, eclectic archive that bear witness to Wilson’s life.

As I write my dissertation on Wilson’s biography, I often think of the privilege I have in researching her life. Before her death, she ensured her personal papers were donated to the Schomburg, a Black archival storehouse, meaning I have access to her written words—her speeches, her class assignments, poetry, and letters to loved ones. I can call her childhood neighbor, cousin, and niece who can speak about Wilson beyond her activism as a friend and loving aunt. Not everyone has that privilege. Still, even with Wilson’s archive there are certain aspects of her life that remain unknown to me. So I must keep searching for this Black woman’s archives in familiar and unfamiliar spaces.


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