Across America 2018
Master’s Scholarship Travel Diary – Georgia Allen
I left Gatwick Airport on 10 July 2018 having no idea how my suitcase was underweight. With two months of travel ahead of me, my bag was stuffed full of summer clothes, notebooks and files to use in the various archives I would be visiting and many other hastily added last minute items. But sure enough it was waved through security with no mention of an oversize fee and I was sitting in a very small budget airways seat expecting next time I would be land I would be in New York City.
That was until two hours later when the pilot announced we were approaching our destination – Reykjavik, Iceland. The confusion and groans from the rest of the passengers took away any potential worry about getting on the wrong plane. It turned out it was the regular route for this “direct” flight. After one angry man demanded to get off in Iceland we were off again.
New York was both my first stop and one of the most important places I would be doing research for my undergraduate thesis – the main purpose of my trip. I was intending on doing that research at the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, the largest site in America devoted solely to Afrocentric artefacts. The main focus was to be Ella Baker’s papers and that of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee however when I arrived in New York they announced last minute they would be closed for 3/5 days I was going to be there!
Luckily in New York there is more than enough to fill your time and last-minute searching on my first morning led me to visit an exhibition on “Revolutions of the 1960s” at the main branch of the NYPL and exhibits on Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and the Women’s Rights movement of New York at the New York Historical Centre with my uncle who I was staying with. Then when I made the treacherous journey across the Hudson, staying with former Univite Rachel Matthews and her lovely family, there was a lot more again to do regardless of archive mishaps. Arriving and heading straight to a postponed 4th July block party through me straight into the American life, I don’t think I’ll ever hear fireworks quite so loud! Breaking up my time spent watching Annoying Orange videos with their son Charlie and visiting their friends was finally a trip to the Schomburg. My first ever day of archival research was nerve-wracking but the lovely staff led me clearly through the whole procedure and I was quickly engrossed in Ella Baker and SNCC’s work. The whole time in New York/New Jersey was capped off with a trip to a local diner and an incredible flight down the Hudson in Rachel’s husbands’ plane. I ould more than recommend staying with the Matthews if you’re going to New York, you eventually work out the bus schedule from Jersey I promise and they’re wonderful hosts!
My next stop was a brief stay in Chicago. It was a last-minute addition, originally I only planned to make a day trip from Wisconsin but after realising the breadth of the material at the University of Chicago I knew I owed it a longer trip. One set of papers I had access to was that of a personal hero of mine, Ida B Wells. Although often looked over, she was a journalist at the forefront of the anti-lynching movement, challenging the notion that it was the behavior of African-American men that led to lynchings and taking this message overseas, all while looking after her 6 siblings from the age of 16. This was definitely one of the moments when I had to question if I should really be handling this kind of archival material without question! It is mind-blowing the access of materials possible in these research centres, I’m very grateful to every library and historical centre and university and everyone who worked there who were all so helpful.
After a few problems finding the right bus (a reoccurring theme in the trip, at least it’s better than having trouble finding the right planes!), I was on my way to Madison, Wisconsin. When I asked my tutor for the best archival sites for the civil rights movement, Madison was the surprise entry on the list. For reasons I still cannot explain, many civil rights leaders left their personal papers to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Given the peculiarity of the location, I was having a hard time finding accommodation until luckily John Stott and his wife Patricia came to my rescue! On top of looking at the fascinating papers of Diane Nash, Anne Braden, Jo Ann Robinson and Daisy Bates – including my first time using microfilm – I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the best of Madison. A walk with John through the Arboretum, cycle rides through the woods into town, as well as chance to see the American Players performance of “Exit The King” all made for a delightful trip, I’m very grateful for them letting me stay so last minute and the chance to have wonderful conversations with them and their friends.
After Madison I headed back to the East Coast for my longest stay – 10 days in Washington DC. With my hostel only a ten-minute walk from the National Mall, I spent my first weekend visiting all the museums I could as well as getting some reading done in the shadow of the Washington Monument. As the week begun, I began my research at the Library of Congress in the Microfilm room where I searched through back issues of Ms. Magazine to find articles written by and about black women. I was focusing on the pre-1978 editions which are only located in the Library of Congress – I was terribly nervous the rest of my time in America that I might lose the flash drive I saved all those hours of cuttings on! At lunchtimes I went to Pete’s Diner for their Pete’s Special, a restaurant I heard about when reading an article about the outgoing speaker of the house John Boehner – he frequented the diner throughout his time in Congress, as do many of the Congressional staff and Congressmen and women themselves. After a few days there I could tell why as the delightful owner Tong teased me as I walked in, asking if I was really going to order exactly the same thing again. I did. One of the highlights of my trip was getting a chance to visit the new National Museum of African American History, one which still requires tickets booked months in advance or getting very lucky on the day. It took me 3 days of waking up at 6am to get one of the few tickets they release in the mornings, but it was more than worth it! The museum tells the history of African-Americans in America. You start on the bottom floor in a tight exhibit that forces you to shuffle shoulder to shoulder with the rest of your group as you learn about the Middle Passage, the history of slavery and how that differed depending on the states. By the time it had moved onto emancipation, then the civil rights movement and beyond the room had opened out, space filled with a model cabin of a sharecropper, an original Tuskegee plane floating above. Once you finished the journey, there was an incredible cafeteria serving food from all over the South as well as more floors showing African-American culture from the modern day. As it was my last day I didn’t have enough time to see everything before I had to leave to the airport, I could’ve easily doubled the 4 hours I spent inside given the opportunity.
Next was a journey South, to visit my namesake state as I spent 4 days in Georgia. Atlanta was the first place I didn’t have a set plan in terms of my research, I had never been to the South before and had always wanted to visit the city. Not to say that it still wasn’t a useful location in learning about the civil rights movement – that much was clear in the airport as the walkway to baggage collection was lined with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr alongside beautiful murals of civil rights heroes. On the first day I set out to visit the civil rights leaders’ birthplace, touring the King Centre built and designed by Coretta Scott King with incredible and heartbreaking pieces including the bag he had packed for the trip where he was assassinated as well as his room key from the Lorraine Motel. The Centre is located right next to the Ebenezer Baptist Church which was where King’s father preached and where King’s funeral was held – right around the corner from the home he grew up in. It is completely open to the public and it was incredibly powerful to sit in the pews and take the whole venue in. The rest of my time in Atlanta was spent enjoying the Southern brunches a little too much and visiting the ‘must-see’ tourist attractions including touring the CNN headquarters, visiting their world-famous aquarium and the original World of Coca-Cola. All the tourists sites provided a much needed air-conditioned respite from Atlanta in August!
In a feat of poor planning even though somehow the flights were cheaper this way, I now crossed all the way to the West Coast, arriving in San Francisco dressed for weather a little warmer than was the case. My next two weeks were to be spent travelling down California looking to expand my research from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Black Panthers that followed in the 1970s. San Francisco, known for a different yet still amazing kind of dining than the South, was again the land of many brunches as well as a lot of seafood. Like a proper tourist I made sure to have a ride on the tram, take a trip down to the Golden Gate bridge and eat in as many hipster cafes as possible.
My next stop was Palo Alto. When I received an email back from Aaref Hilaly explaining they would be out of town on the dates I would be there I didn’t realise that was still an invitation to stay in their beautiful home. The three days I spent there visiting Stanford’s archives were wonderful and I’m very thankful that Aaref and his wife Fariha were so generous as to give me somewhere to stay even when they wouldn’t be there themselves and to their housekeeper Andrea who made sure I had everything I needed while I was there.
My last California stop was Los Angeles, a bus journey as long as my flight out to America but definitely worth it considering the price. I had a great time visiting the Hollywood sign, the Chinese Theatre, Hollywood Walk of Fame and exhibits at the Getty and the Californian African American Museum. I was lucky enough to have a friend living in LA which made things a whole lot simpler.
Back across America, my last research stop was Boston! Working at the Schlesinger Library in Harvard was one of most amazing research opportunities. I had the chance to look at Pauli Murray’s papers who I had only heard about in my reading over the summer but is now going to be a central figure in my thesis. She was a civil rights activist, lawyer and poet who conducted some of the first sit-ins while on a Virginia bus in 1940 and later in DC restaurants while attending Howard. She overcame great adversity both to get an education, challenging Universities along the way for not allowing her to be admitted based either on her race or sex. She was also close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and coined the term “Jane Crow” as her civil rights work began to merge with her interest in the women’s movement – reading her diaries and letters was a privilege. At Harvard I also looked at the papers of Virginia Durr, a white civil rights activist who, after growing up in a racist Southern household. became known for housing SNCC volunteers in Montgomery. She was also close friends with Rosa Parks and sister-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. I found while doing research that often what you set out to find is hardly ever going to present itself perfectly. In my case I was trying to gain insight into the personal thoughts and opinions of female civil rights activists and, in the case of Virginia Durr, I was successful as her papers were full of correspondence with her eldest daughter Ann. Boston was too full of many memorable experience outside of the library – I attended my first baseball game seeing, the recently crowned World Champions, Boston Red Sox win. I also saw the annual St Anthony’s feast in the Italian quarter of Boston and spent a day following the Freedom Trail, making sure to stop into their expansive Chinatown as well. On my last few nights I was able to spend time with some friends back from summer break at Harvard. Boston was definitely a highlight of the trip given how successful the archival work was and because I had a good amount of time to explore a city I had never been to before.
My last stop was Fort Myers, Florida where I had previously work as a field organiser on Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign. I was hoping I wasn’t a bad luck charm as I went back to visit the lovely lady who I had stayed with for a whole summer – Lois – and spend two weeks doing my little bit for the mid-terms. There was no easing into it, the morning after I arrived Lois had me out canvassing, her driving between stops and me jumping out at every door, hoping for a Democrat in South-West Florida which is always a big ask. As always, those that I was able to have real conversations with, the other volunteers and all the candidates I met were fascinating people. Unlike 2 years ago when those that were Democrats gave us their begrudging support, there was real enthusiasm for Andrew Gillum, Bill Nelson and voting in general. I had multiple voters thanking me for volunteering and inviting me inside for water, one even realising she had no water bottles and sending us away with her cups insisting she had too many anyway. Mail in ballots were filled in readily and those that insisted they wanted to go to the polls didn’t do so as a tactic to send us a way but built on a genuine excitement at making a vote they knew mattered a great deal. It was very encouraging to witness.
And that was the end of my trip, an amazing summer spent with wonderful people visiting incredible places and completing invaluable research for my thesis. I’m so thankful to everyone that made it possible – to the Master for the travel grant, to John, Rachel and Aaref for hosting me and to the archives who allowed me to research as well as all the friends and family that put me up.
Published: 23 January 2019
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