Most Mary Washington students, faculty, and alumni know about James Farmer’s legacy, both to American history and to our institution. One of the Big Four leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he organized the Freedom Ride in 1961 to ensure desegregation of interstate transportation, co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and was a committed activist, leader, and teacher. His teaching career ended here at UMW, where he served as Distinguished Professor of History and American Studies from 1985 until his retirement in 1998.
James Farmer, a native Texan, donated his papers to the University of Texas at Austin, where they reside in the repository at the Briscoe Center for American History. However, portions of his papers remained at UMW and now live in our Special Collections. These materials primarily consist of items pertaining to his various professional interests and engagements in the last few decades of his life. Previous staff members and student aides have done some preliminary work with sorting and arrangement, and past students have done a lot of great work with pieces of his collection, but now his entire collection is being fully processed and described with the goal of making this whole valuable archival collection discoverable and available to the research community and greater public.
Processing the collection takes time and involves certain measures. We need to make sure we respect the integrity of the items and any original order that may have been established by the creator, but we also need to ensure the materials last as long as possible and can be reasonably used by researchers. These measures may include organizing the materials into series based on material type and/or subject, and taking practical preservation steps such as housing papers in acid-free archival folders and protecting photographs with mylar sleeves. Ultimately, we want to make sure these materials stay safe to help tell James Farmer’s important story for as long as they can, and we want to make sure that you can discover all the parts of the story available to you here.
Possibly the most interesting treasures in this collection are the audiovisual materials collected from Farmer’s time in Fredericksburg. They make up about a third of the collection. Among other items of interest, these document some of his lectures and various television and radio appearances over the course of his life. Fortunately, these materials have been digitized (alas, VCRs and reel-to-reel players are not too common any more). However, another not-so-glamorous part of processing involves sifting through the recordings to determine the relevant copyrights and ownership. It’s important to ensure that everything is credited properly and attributed to the correct source. Once that’s sorted, we can take steps to preserve the digital files (that’s for a post about our exciting digital asset management system another day!) and make these accessible along with the papers.
Stay tuned for updates! We’re working hard on completing the processing and hope to have the collection available soon.