ByGeorge! Online

Feb. 19, 2002

Africana Research Center Welcomes Local Novelist Breena Clarke

Library Looks to Establish New Center

By Brian Krause

Gelman Library kicked off Black History Month with a visit from best-selling African American author and Washington native Breena Clarke.
The event was the first in a campaign to raise funds for a new initiative to establish an Africana Research Center at Gelman Library. The center will work to acquire, preserve, and make accessible for research primary documents about the history and development of African American Washingtonians.

Clarke discussed the historical significance of this program and signed copies of her new Oprah’s Book Club novel, “River Cross My Heart,” about an African American family living in Georgetown in 1925.

“I am very excited about this initiative and am convinced about the importance of this kind of collection of material culture,” she says. “We need to… preserve these things.”

Historical documents were invaluable to Clarke in helping her recreate 1920s Georgetown. She spent hours digging through photographs and records in the archives at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown.

“When I was writing the novel and needed to know what a flat iron from 1925 looked like, I was able to look at pictures. What may seem like a flat, dull piece of paper can be really exciting to writers and novelists,” Clarke says.

The addition of African American materials is nothing new to Gelman Library, which has a history of collecting such documents for more than 50 years. With the donation of the W. Lloyd Wright Collection in 1950, The George Washington University began maintaining a significant collection of early Washington history, including an original copy of “Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland Almanac” published in 1795.
Since then, Gelman Library has built upon the foundation of the Wright Collection, acquiring papers from the Reverend Walter E. Fauntroy, a key adviser to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and the first person to represent the District of Columbia in the United States Congress in 1971.

“One role of the library is to collect and protect these documents for posterity,” says University Librarian Jack Siggins. “We have a significant special collection of materials. We regularly collect materials related to Washington and the African American community.”

At the beginning of the 2001 academic year, Siggins met with Director of Special Collections Francine Henderson to discuss establishing an Africana Research Center at Gelman Library.

“This is part of an effort to recognize the importance of our Washingtonian African Collection,” Siggins adds. “It’s also part of an effort to strengthen support for the African American Studies program.”
Siggins named Henderson, the new Africana curator responsible for raising resources to fund the acquisition and preparation of materials at Gelman Library.

Henderson aims to raise $1.5 million over the next three years as she works to provide a stable foundation for the center. She asks that anyone interested in donating papers, documents, memorabilia, or money contact her at Gelman Library; adding that even what seems meaningless to some could be important to historians.

“Our goal is to become one of a number of institutions in the Washington area making primary documents and papers available to students, researchers, and scholars,” says Henderson. “This particular initiative will endow funds in order that research by and about African Americans in Washington will be strengthened and continued.”


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