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Black Teacher Archive Enters New Phase with Grant Awards

Phase II of HGSE project will focus on supporting new research, fill in gaps in the archive's collection
Jarvis Givens Askwith

Following the successful development of the Black Teacher Archive (BTA), beginning in 2020 with initial funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the BTA’s public unveiling in 2023, a pair of new grants will allow the project to expand its reach and impact in the coming years.

The archive, a digital open access portal of more than 50,000 digitized pages of Colored Teachers Association (CTA) materials from nearly 70 institutions, is a collaboration between Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Gutman Library and HGSE faculty and staff. The project was conceptualized by Professor Jarvis Givens and Radcliffe Institute Professor Imani Perry and implemented by BTA Senior Project Manager Micha Broadnax.

According to Givens, the grants will allow the BTA to address gaps in the archive’s collection and expand its reach to fellow scholars of African American studies, education, and history.

“Hopefully this archive and the stories it contains about Black teachers can help people see African American history in a new light; and in doing so, achieve deeper appreciation for the crucial role teachers will have to play in addressing current crises we face in schools and society,” says Givens. “The BTA collection reminds us that educators play a key role as political actors in shaping the broader social order. I think we lose sight of that too often, and it’s apparent in the way so many in our society talk about educators and the teaching profession.”

Below, Givens outlines what Phase II will mean for the Black Teacher Archive and the response the project has garnered since last fall.

What will these new grants allow the Black Teacher Archive to do? 
We’ve received two recent grants to continue support for the Black Teacher Archives. The Spencer Foundation grant is just shy of $373,000, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded us $1.1 million. These grants will help us focus on three key, interrelated priorities for Phase II: usability, reciprocity, and investing in an intellectual community around the BTA.

Usability has to do with enhancing user experience with the archive. Now that it’s public, we can learn things from those engaging with the BTA portal, whether they be instructors using the BTA in their courses or scholars using the portal for research. We want to make the user experience more efficient by developing new digital assets for the portal based on feedback we’re receiving, while creating opportunities for people to engage with the Black Teacher Archive in more meaningful ways through intentional programming.

Black Teacher Archive display at Gutman Library
The Black Teacher Archive exhibit was on display in Gutman Library in October 2023

Our focus on reciprocity stems from the fact that several institutions beyond Harvard helped make the BTA possible. Therefore, we will redistribute a significant portion of the new funding to support local efforts focused on preserving the history of Black teachers. We’ve learned of many inspiring preservation efforts already underway, and many of these efforts can help fill in current gaps in the BTA and the historical record as it pertains to Black teachers.

The third priority, investment in an intellectual community, is about developing spaces for scholars and educators to come together; to think with the BTA, produce new scholarship, and to do this work collaboratively. In addition to research, we will also bring scholars together to exchange ideas about how they’re integrating this history of Black teachers into their classrooms and professional learning spaces.

You’ve organized a summer research institute and worked with doctoral students to share this research already. What other projects are you supporting with these grants?   
Yes, we piloted the BTA Summer Research Institute last year with doctoral students from UCLA, Teachers College, University of Georgia, and Harvard, and we will have a second cohort of students this June. But one of the major things we’re doing in Phase II is a microgrant program. We’re essentially redistributing funding to support preservation efforts focused on Black teachers led by archivists and scholars around the country. We’ll be able to fund projects up to $40,000 through this microgrant program.

We’re also establishing a BTA teaching grants program. This will provide stipends and support for scholars developing new lesson plans, course projects, or cumulative assignments that significantly engage the BTA collection and portal. Working with these instructors, we will create reusable curricular assets that will be publicly available through the BTA portal. These will be freely available for anyone interested in integrating the history of Black teachers and African American education into their courses.  

Why is it so important to archive and contextualize these journals and bring them together for scholars, teachers, and students? 
This archive reveals the critical role African American teachers played in all aspects of the Black freedom struggle, which led to many of the civil rights victories we benefit from today; although, unfortunately, many of those achievements are being attacked and undermined at this very moment. One important lesson revealed in the records of Black teachers is that their legacy is not about individual heroic teachers — though there were many — but it's in the organizations they built to collectively advocate and strategically push for educational justice and social transformation. And Colored Teachers Associations are but one set of institutions these teachers took part in. The journals reveal how these same teachers were also members of other civic and social organizations that gave form to Black political and cultural life more broadly during the 20th century. As the largest professional group in Black America, these teachers were not moving as individuals, they moved and organized as a collective.

Organizing and collecting all of this is not easy or linear work. Is there anything about this project that’s surprised you as it enters Phase II? 
The response to the BTA has been so inspiring and affirming. I think the project came at a very important time. I’ve noticed a movement among communities of educators who are working, valiantly, to address the lack of diversity in the teaching profession, particularly focusing on the recruitment and retention of Black teachers. Grassroots efforts have sprouted up in local contexts, others are national in scope, and they have formed in response to similar aggressions Black folks historically faced, which led to Colored Teachers Associations in the 19th and 20th centuries, before they were forced to integrate themselves out of existence. In fact, that disintegration of CTAs is one of the hidden injuries of the way the Brown decision was implemented. So, I’m saying, I was surprised to find an eager audience for the BTA that goes far beyond historians and archivists. It’s an audience among scholar-practitioners working in schools, and community members concerned about anti-Blackness in U.S. education.  

"I think the project came at a very important time. I’ve noticed a movement among communities of educators who are working, valiantly, to address the lack of diversity in the teaching profession, particularly focusing on the recruitment and retention of Black teachers."

Professor Jarvis Givens

The range of institutions that contributed to the BTA is another thing that surprised me. We received historical materials from public and private universities and research centers, ranging from HBCUs and publicly funded historically white institutions to private universities and individuals with relevant historical materials in their homes.

I’ve also been really pleased with the response from HGSE leadership. Dean Bridget Terry Long was very supportive and made the Black Teacher Archive a priority. Dean Long recognized the important historical significance of this collection, having come from a family of Black teachers herself; but she also insisted the work be taken seriously because of its many offerings to scholars and practitioners in our field. To have support from the dean to help elevate the profile of this work has been extremely meaningful. It reassured our team that HGSE was the right place for building this work out.

What does it mean personally to move this work forward? 
It’s kind of hard to put into words. The work is quite labor-intensive, but it’s also gratifying in so many ways. It’s intellectually gratifying, spiritually gratifying, and I often feel moved emotionally, because I’m someone who benefitted so much from teachers who were directly shaped and molded by the tradition of African American education reflected in the BTA. I was taught by Black teachers, many of whom were southerners who migrated to California and taught me in the ‘90s and early 2000s. It’s like they prepared me for this work without even knowing it.

Moving the work of the BTA forward is meaningful because it recovers a historical tradition that speaks boldly to our present moment, and it’s also a tradition that has touched me personally. In that same vein, as a scholar of Black educational history, I see myself operating in an intellectual tradition that builds on and honors a legacy of scholars who made room for me and my academic work — people like Carter G. Woodson, James D. Anderson, and Vanessa Siddle Walker, Ed.M.’85, Ed.D.’88. So, my attachment to the work has many layers; and for me, the work is more nourishing than costly. I’m extremely grateful for that.


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