Black History in CyberspaceGAMBIER, Ohio (October 12, 2010)
Kenyon students have dived deep into a sea of long-buried photos, news clippings, posters, and family documents, to create a remarkable archive —online—that tells the story of African-American life in the heartland county that the College calls home.
The project, called the Knox County Black History Digital Archives, is believed to be the largest online collection of artifacts relating to the African-American experience in rural Ohio. "Numerous sources detail America's slavery past and the civil rights era," said archives director Ric S. Sheffield, "but there is a real absence of literature about life in rural America for racial and ethnic minorities."
Sheffield, the College's associate provost and associate professor of sociology and legal studies, was born and reared in Mount Vernon, a few miles from the Kenyon campus. His family is part of a local African-American community that goes back two centuries.
A program of the Rural Life Center at Kenyon, the archives project rescues from obscurity events such as an 1877 lecture in Mount Vernon by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the acquisition in 1920 by the Ku Klux Klan of the present-day site of the Knox County Fairgrounds. The county's first recorded black resident, marriage, homecoming queen, and elected official are preserved here, along with notices of performances by the Mount Vernon Giants, a 1920s baseball team, and the Snowden Family Band, a nineteenth-century musical group that may have composed the song Dixie.
"The Community Within," a black-history exhibit created by Kenyon students, faculty, and community partners in the early 1990s, is also documented in the archives. Kenyon reinvigorated those partnerships to expand the collection and take it into cyberspace, with support from the Ohio Humanities Council, the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, and the Knox County Historical Society and Museum. The technology "makes the collection more interesting and attractive, provides easy access with links to other public libraries, and turns it into a living archive that will continue to grow," Sheffield said.
Janae Peters '10, Christian Martinez-Canchola '13, and Stella Naulo '13 were among the students who helped with the research and digital conversion. "It was really an eye-opening experience," said Martinez-Canchola, a sociology major. "I had no idea Mount Vernon and Knox County had such a rich minority history. I truly fell in love with the project and learned so many skills—such as how to interview people—that will help me in the future."