Uncovering the Underreported and Ignored

Students are using Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library to create new scholarship in African American and African Diaspora Studies.

Caroline Harting
October 02, 2019

Last December, Columbia University announced the formation of the African American and African Diaspora Studies department where undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students will have an opportunity to produce innovative scholarship, conduct research and examine African American life in U.S. society.

The department is less than a year old, but Columbia Libraries already has robust collections to support this new discipline and its students.

“Since African American history is inseparable from American history, the University's archival holdings have always been relevant to the project of African American and African Diaspora Studies,” said Thai Jones, the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML). “For instance, we have documents related to buying and selling of enslaved people by prominent New Yorkers from the colonial and revolutionary eras.”

While there are artifacts dating back to the 1700s, many of the important documents have been acquired in the past few decades. Some of these include the papers of Amiri Baraka, David Dinkins, C.L.R. James, Hubert Harrison and Alexander Gumby as well as the Black Journalists Oral History Project. Last year, Columbia acquired the archive of Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American civil rights and social justice activist who was a close friend of Malcolm X.

Over the last five years, in an encouraging trend, Jones has seen a tremendous increase in the number of students who access the RBML.

“The kind of teaching we do in the archives, through classes like the Columbia University & Slavery seminar, allows students to participate actively in the process of creating historical knowledge," said Jones. “By acquiring advanced research skills, they are able to see how past scholars have used and misused the historical record. And they feel empowered to make their own contributions to these ongoing conversations.” 

Below are photos of students from the African American and African Diaspora Studies department and the Columbia University & Slavery seminar interacting with some of the artifacts from the collections.