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Remembering the Forgotten: Black Staff Members (1946-1971)
Bal Artis, Tenaya Bien, and Megan Wirtz explore challenges in archival research when inquiring into the lives of black staff members at the University of Richmond between 1946 and 1971 in Remembering the Forgotten.
Examine the following pictures of African American staff at the University of Richmond. What do you notice first? We came across numerous photos like the ones shown below. Both photos show individual staff members, whose names are not noted; usually their occupations are substituted for names. In the article titled “Wreck on Campus,” the caption describes the “Negro dining hall worker,” whose car was involved in a wreck, devoid of any personal identifiers. This is not unusual; in the photos we could find of black staff members they were often captioned with the person’s occupation on campus. Identifying them only by the jobs they did and the services they provided at the university. In the second photo accompanying the poem titled “janitors”, the author has selected a photo that shows a lone black janitor sweeping a stairwell. The corresponding poem describes the diligence of the janitors in carrying out the monotonous task of sweeping up after students. The poem dehumanizes the task and makes it sound almost mechanical. The line “diligently they sweep for hours” connotes that the janitors’ only task is to sweep. Their purpose lies in “getting the trash in mass” until “Voila – a pile”. The ending of the poem reduces the occupation to its most basic and mechanical task, dehumanizing the worker in the process. Given the specificity of the poem’s language and the photo that shows a single worker, the focus then becomes the individual and what defines him. It would therefore be logical to identify the individual by name. Since there is only one person being photographed, his name would be essential to his identification. As in so many other sources we came across the author chose not to identify the individual, another way of dehumanizing the individual.
Along with the photographs of unnamed staff members, we also found articles written about staff members and their jobs at the university. In these pieces, student writers often told of the jobs that staff members did on a daily basis to make the campus run. In the Collegian column “Under the Hill: SBA To Recognize Workers”, the author described all the work done by the ground crew all year around to keep the campus clean for students. The article names Joe the janitor (it is unclear if this is an allegory for all staff members or someone who the students would know personally), and his thoughtfulness in keeping spaces clean for students. The staff members, the student notes, were especially conscious not to disturb the students with their daily tasks. The article concludes with the statement “students are so thoughtless” and urges the student population to take note of the invisible tasks carried out by workers around campus. The article tries to make students aware of the hard work done by staff to keep their campus tidy, however, it fails to recognize the individuals focusing rather on the value they add to the campus by the tasks they do. The general consensus of the documents we encounters was that while the university may have recognized individuals by capturing their image in photographs, but the general lack of information even as basic as names leads us to concluded that their identity on campus was not noticed or important. What were important were the services they provided for the university. While the university community saw their contributions valuable, their identity as individuals was restricted to the functions they performed in the service of the university’s white student population.