This [Black] Woman’s Work: Exploring Archival Projects that Embrace the Identity of the Memory Worker


  • Chaitra Powell University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Holly Smith Spelman College
  • Shanee' Murrain University of West Georgia
  • Skyla Hearn DuSable Museum of African American History



community archives, African American history, cultural heritage, churches, museums, libraries, activism, African American librarians, African American archivists


Archivists who work on African American collections are increasingly more aware that traditional sites of African American agency and autonomy are becoming more unstable. The need to capture the perspectives and histories of these institutions is urgent. The challenges become more acute when communities recognize the need to preserve their legacies but do not have the resources or support to make it happen. African American material culture and history remains at risk of co-optation from large institutions and individuals seeking to monetize and profit from collecting Black collections. Endemic in that process is the risk of these institutions controlling the narrative and inadvertently or deliberately erasing the narratives of these diverse communities from that community’s perspective. Cultural memory workers focused on African American collections face numerous challenges: the risk of losing the materials or communities themselves; partnering with organizations and administrations with differing, and perhaps conflicting agendas; working on projects with limited or term funding; and the emotional labor of being a person of color in a predominantly white field trying to support communities that can often reflect their own experiences. How can libraries, museums, and archives bring these communities into the world of archives and empower them to protect and share their stories? How can archivists, particularly those of color, find support within their institutions and the archival profession, to accomplish this work of preserving African American cultural heritage? How can archives support genuinely collaborative projects with diverse Black communities without co-opting their stories and collections?

The authors will address these questions in this article, discussing their experiences working with a variety of institutions—predominantly white universities, Black colleges, churches, neighborhoods and families. The authors also include their reflections from their National Conference of African American Librarians panel presentation in August 2017 on these related topics.


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Author Biographies

Chaitra Powell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chaitra Powell is the African American Collections and Outreach Archivist for the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She attended the University of Arizona for her B.A. in Sociology and M.A. in Library Science. She is a certified archivist, and prior to working for the Southern Historical Collection she worked as an archival consultant in Los Angeles - primarily for the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum.

Holly Smith, Spelman College

Holly Smith is the College Archivist at Spelman College. She received a B.A. in History and Black Studies from William and Mary, an M.A. in History from Yale University, and an M.S. in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archival Management from Simmons College. She is passionate about community archives and archival advocacy related to collections for underrepresented groups.

Shanee' Murrain, University of West Georgia

Shanee’ Yvette Murrain is the University Archivist and an Assistant Professor in Ingram Library Special Collections at the University of West Georgia. She holds a MDiv from Drew Theological School and MLS from North Carolina Central University. As former Director of Library Services and Archivist at Payne Theological Seminary, she curated the Payne Theological Seminary and African Methodist Episcopal Church Digital Collection. Shanee’ is passionate about equity in archival representation, digital collections, information literacy, and community outreach.

Skyla Hearn, DuSable Museum of African American History

Skyla Hearn serves as the Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the DuSable Museum of African American History. She works with cultural heritage, arts, education and community organizations and institutions throughout Chicago/land area. As an activist archivist, she champions for the unsung, cultural and societal contributors from African American communities and other groups not of the hegemony. She earned her MLIS, Special Collections certificate, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.




How to Cite

Powell, Chaitra, Holly Smith, Shanee’ Murrain, and Skyla Hearn. 2018. “This [Black] Woman’s Work: Exploring Archival Projects That Embrace the Identity of the Memory Worker”. KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies 2 (1):5.

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