Paper Trails – Documents Tell the Story of Wilberforce

The story of Wilberforce, Ohio, and its important role in African American history is told through a new collection in the Ohio Memory digital library. Nearly 400 unique documents from the archives of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center are now available online. The digital collection will grow as more archival collections are processed and scanned. With the assistance of student interns from nearby Central State University, project archivist Charles Wash anticipates that more than 1,000 documents will be made accessible during the course of the project. The creation of a digital collection presenting a selection of the center’s archival treasures was made possible by a substantial two-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

A Hub on the Underground Railroad and Home of Wilberforce University

While the center collects material documenting the African American experience across the country, staff determined that materials illustrating the history of Wilberforce, a village in Greene County, would take precedence for organizing and scanning. The village and its prominent residents have played significant roles in African American history. Wilberforce was a hub on the Underground Railroad that assisted slaves in escaping to freedom prior to the Civil War, with seven active stations. It’s also the home of Wilberforce University, the oldest private, historically black university in the United States. Documents included in the digital collection have primarily been selected from the papers of people associated with the university, including Yvonne Walker-Taylor, first female president of Wilberforce University; Bernard Proctor, a teacher and heralded football coach; and Col. Charles Young, a professor of military science.

Highlights Include Items from the Charles Young Collection

Items from the Charles Young collections are highlights of the digital collection. Young was the son of a Civil War veteran who served in the United States Colored Troops. Though not well remembered today, he was an accomplished soldier and civic leader who, in the early 20th century, was among the best-known African Americans. Wash says, “He should easily be mentioned alongside other great figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and even Andrew Carnegie.” Young was the third African American to graduate from West Point, a Buffalo Soldier, and the first African American to be named U.S. Military Attaché.

A remarkable letter in the digital collection is dated Jan. 14, 1916, from W.E.B.
Du Bois to Young and his wife, Ada, notifying them that Young has been nominated for the Spingarn Medal. Du Bois writes, “The fact of the matter is this: The Major has been selected for the Spingarn medal, being the second recipient for the same. You know that the Spingarn medal is given to the colored American who has done the best work during the year.” In being only the second person to receive this medal, Young became part of an elite group that would eventually include Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, Maya Angelou and Colin Powell, among many others.

To see this letter and more, visit the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center Collection on Ohio Memory. You can search the collection by keyword or browse. The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center museum in Wilberforce is open to visitors Wednesday through Saturday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; the archives is open to researchers by appointment.

Reposted from Ohio History E-news

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