Archives: you can judge how hard your worked by how dark the ink stains are on your hands

14 Sep 2018 1:19 PM | Dane Claussen

By Scott Burgess, Wayne State University

To me, archives are a lot like churches. Both hold ancient texts; both operate in hushed silence; and both have too few visitors. During my career as a journalist, I had visited a few archives, but more to poke around and see what might be there, hoping to stumble upon something I could use for a story. Good research, however, requires more than just groping in the dark for a light switch. Good research tries to figure out where to look before the flailing begins. 

As a doctoral student, I rediscovered both my reverence for archives and artifacts and the pure excitement behind realizing you just may have found something important. Under the demanding but kind hand of Wayne State University’s journalism historian Dr. Michael Fuhlhage, I began a project that examined how the United Auto Workers used the media to recruit African-American workers in 1940s. Over the course of the semester, Dr. Fuhlhage patiently helped me hone my skills to comprehensively and meticulously pour through documents filed away that rarely see sunlight. Wayne State’s Walter P. Reuther Library houses all of the UAW’s archives and contains a staggering amount of material ranging from internal memos and handwritten notes to meeting minutes and various campaign flyers. However, as I’m sure many historians know, finding these documents and determining their significance remains is no easy task.

Combining my journalism skills and carefully plotted instructions that showed me how to organize my findings (and later interpret them), I folded away my personal belongings in a hallway locker and entered the archive’s examination room with just a list of boxes I hoped to view, a pencil, and my camera. I set up at a large oak table and took in the cathedral-like atmosphere. A few other scholars quietly worked around me, combing through files. I opened one reserved box and was hit by that sweet pungent smell of damp paper and began my exploration. I worked for more than two weeks – and having strategically invested in cookies for the archivists on a few days -- found the documents that brought to life the first paper I would have accepted at any academic conference – the 2017 American Historical Journalism Association’s national conference in Little Rock, Arkansas.

I had only a vague understanding of how many hours I spent in the Reuther because it was so easy to lose focus on the task at hand and start reading everything. Six banker boxes waited for me when I walked in the first day and every day after that there would be between eight and 10 sitting on library carts. Walter Reuther, a founding member of the UAW, made famous when Henry Ford’s team of thugs beat him outside of the Rouge River plant, had more than one hundred feet of documents. Telegrams from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, letters for dignitaries, and Reuther’s handwritten edits on onion skin drafts of speeches that would embolden union members to continue their work were now in my hands. Another box from another UAW official had notes about how all of the union leaders carried guns because of the constant threats made against them, and how on one night, the second president of the UAW and Reuther’s brother, Viktor, almost killed each other in a dark alley. It was easy to lose myself in the history I was physically holding.

But I did have a paper to finish, and I resisted the urge just enough to discover the first bulldog edition of the UAW’s weekly newspaper that was printed exclusively for African-Americans. While I have never found a reference to this paper in previous literature, the paper was sitting right out in the open in a bounded edition of the papers. The only difference was that every photo in the eight-page tabloid paper included African Americans and the stories were written about and for African Americans. As it would turn out, the UAW’s role in recruiting African Americans would have a profound impact at other unions and throughout the automotive world. It would still take decades before the civil rights movement would take hold – something the UAW would eventually join – but many strategies first employed by the UAW would be used by African Americans fighting for civil rights. 

As part of a different historical research team led by Dr. Fuhlhage, I assisted with a second paper accepted at the 2018 AJHA national conference examining how newspapers around the country in 1860 wrote about succession and the editorials that followed. We traced the exchange programs and examine how stories moved around the country more than 150 years ago. Anyone who immerses themselves in those papers immediately understands that any argument that suggests that the Civil War was not about slavery has only a loose grip on reality. A sharp focus and insight into the past certainly crystalizes what is happening today in ways that will continue to produce fascinating research on the human’s race inability to learn from its own mistakes. 

While I began my academic career strictly as a political communication scholar who loves journalism, it is through AJHA and the Dr. Fuhlhage’s infectious excitement in journalism history that has broadened the scope and depth of my scholarship. At the end of the day of researching, having dug through dozens of boxes, hundreds of files, you can judge how hard your worked by how dark the ink stains are on your hands. It’s immensely satisfying. Especially after you have on your camera pictures of a brochure created by the UAW in 1941 and used exclusively to recruit African Americans into the union that changed the course of the future. Those little discoveries continue to build up for me, and I understand yet another church-archive similarity. When you find something meaningful, even an atheist like me realizes that there just might have been divine intervention. 

G. Scott Burgess is a second-year doctoral student at Wayne State University. A former paratrooper and journalist, Scott has been a reporter, editor, war correspondent, and automotive critic. Scott’s scholarship includes political communication, incivility, new media and journalism history.

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