Written by Sarah Calise, graduate assistant
Today is my final day as a graduate assistant at the Albert Gore Research Center, and I would like to dedicate this blog to the project I’ve been pushing for since September 2015.
Quickly following the Charleston shooting on June 17, 2015, black students at Middle Tennessee State University called for an end to the Confederate symbols that still plagued the campus. The protests mainly surrounded the ROTC building honored after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. This was the fourth major protest against Forrest at the university. The first demonstrations, led by student Sylvester Brooks, occurred in the 1960s after integration. Two other movements happened in the late 1980s and in 2006. Finally, the fourth protests began last summer. Although, an examination of Sidelines articles shows that debates about Confederate symbols and racism on campus have appeared intermittently since the 1960s.
With the support of the university archivist, Donna Baker, I began the development of a digital collection that would capture this fourth major protest as the history unfolded. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, many archivists around the country realized that waiting to receive personal papers related to these demonstrations years from now may be too late. History is happening now and, in the digital age, sources can disappear faster than it takes to tweet 140 characters.
The development of this digital collection was a slow process that involved a lot of convincing, relationship-building, and learning-as-we-go strategies. As a graduate student, there were many times I felt overwhelmed. As an emerging archivist, there were many times I made mistakes. As a human being, there were days of frustration and much needed self-care.
The digital collection is not perfect but it exists, and sometimes that is half the battle when a university neglected to document the voices of students of color for decades. Right now, the Forrest Collection contains mostly photographs from protests and public forums during the 2015-2016 academic year. Overall, there will be more than 200 items–documents, newspapers, yearbook pages, photographs, videos, and social media posts–housed in the digital collection that covers the relationship between Forrest, Confederate symbols, and MTSU dating back to the 1930s.
After today, I pass on the future duties of the digital collection to Donna Baker, and I know it is in trusted hands. I want to thank her for her unwavering support throughout this entire project. She was the first person I pitched the idea to the day after the protest in August.
Finally, I want to thank the courageous students (both past and present) who fought long and hard against the white supremacy and Confederate symbols at our university. We will win.