Black History Month: How the Houston Public Library is working to preserve African-American stories in US history

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) – Dr. Jesse Esparza periodically visits the African American Library at the Gregory School, part of the Houston Public Library system. Growing up, he barely remembers learning about the stories of our ethnic and minority communities in San Antonio in Texas public schools.

“The curriculum that I got in K-12 was usually European and not black — Latinos, African Americans, women, etc.,” says Esparza.

Now, as a history professor at Texas Southern University, he says it’s important to him that his children learn all parts of American history, including the good and the bad. bad thing.

“I always want them to learn as much as possible. Unbiased history, culture and heritage, honestly, exactly because I think that makes them a better person overall.” Esparza says they are often attacked by disinformation in their classrooms and social media. “These are the kinds of places where imbalances are corrected and gaps filled.”

The library not only played an important role in the education of his children. But it was also part of the curriculum for his students and his work as an academic scholar.

Dr. Esparza said: “Before the pandemic, I would take students through history through archives. It’s what we call ‘Houston History through Artefacts’, where students find Thorough understanding of archives and presentations”. “If this library weren’t here, I would have missed out on a lot of time. Some of the publications that I have as part of the portfolio and research that I submitted for my tenure come from this institution. .”

The building, which housed the first school for African-American children after liberation, now contains thousands of artifacts, documents, oral historical records, and exhibits. Miguel Caesar, curator of the African American Library at the Gregory School, said it was officially converted in 2009.

“It is very important for people to understand that the history of African-Americans is not just slavery as we have always contributed to the development of not only Houston and Texas, but the nation as a whole,” he said. family”. “African-American history is everyone’s history.”

Caesar has shown how the Greater Houston area has been the site of many important events in African-American history. June 13, the newest federal holiday, commemorates the day enslaved African-Americans in Galveston were announced that they were free on June 19, 1865. Even today, Houston has become what it is. George Floyd’s final resting place where he grew up and played sports at a high level. schools and universities. His murder in 2020 by a police officer in Minneapolis sparked a movement against police brutality and systemic racism.

The library partners with schools in the area to provide resources about Houston’s African-American communities. The new $50,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services also allows them to hire an additional staff member to help digitize the 5,000 photographs and documents in their 5 archives, which they find valuable. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can still get the content you need,” Caesar said. “You can still get it without leaving the house.” The next flood will come. Heat and humidity can cause a lot of problems when trying to preserve hardcopy items. Digitization gives us another way to protect these items. It gives us a better shelf life to preserve for future generations. “

The most extensive collection is by Ben DeSoto, a former Houston Post and Houston Chronicle photojournalist for more than 30 years. His work documented the human and racial experience of Houston in the fourth and fifth wards. Archives leader Sheena Wilson predicts that 2,900 of those images will be digitized by July. But with 20,000 to 30,000 images from DeSoto’s collection, she says this will be a project in progress. The one that takes the most time is entering the metadata for each image.

Dr. Esparza says that when we don’t learn about the dark patches of history, history can repeat itself. It can also perpetuate negative stereotypes and harmful stigmas about our diverse communities.

“It set an instant record. We live in a time now where there’s debate among politicians, this type of attack, and this ban on what they identify as important racial theory.” This educational framework is trying to whitewash the way we learn to speak.

Wilson hopes to help revive those stories of our African-American communities so often forgotten or neglected in American history.

“It was really personal to me because going through school, there wasn’t a lot of material on African American History,” she said. “Being able to provide another outlet for students, for the public, for researchers to learn about African American History is great to me.”

They also encourage the public to document their family’s history by preserving historical items, documentary photographs, and oral recordings. Community members can also donate these items to institutions like the African American Library at Gregory School.

“Your grandparents were probably the first people to have an archive in their living room. People don’t usually make that connection. But they’ve already built their archive,” says Wilson. “If you don’t preserve those memories or keep them in an institution somewhere, what happens when your parents or you are no longer around? No one will know about your history.”

“One of the things I didn’t do before I went to Gregory School that I do now is turn off the tape recorder when I talk to my parents and grandparents. These are beautiful stories that should exist everywhere and be preserved. forever”. Dr. Esparza said.

“Whoever is keeping a family history at home, take the time to write down the names of all the individuals in that photo, the dates, the places, the events. That way, if it’s saved. publicly stored somewhere, it will win,” said Caesar.

The African American library at Gregory School will host virtual events every Thursday night for Black History Month. But they encourage the community to come and learn about these stories year-round, not just in February. They also have galleries detailing the history of the Fourth Ward and Freeman’s Town and a traveling exhibit. For their calendar events, visit Houston Public Library website.

For stories across Houston’s diverse communities, follow Rosie Nguyen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Dais Johnston

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