New USF Libraries collection focuses on Florida’s African American experience

ST. PETERSBURG — Drawn from previous collections, the African American Experience in Florida (AAE) is a new online portal that includes hundreds of artifacts highlighting the injustices that affected Black communities and businesses. Some of the archives date back to the early 1800s. As part of USF’s ongoing efforts to dismantle systemic racism and promote racial equity, the portal will support the growing need for resource materials that reveal the experiences of Black lives.

“We’re sitting on some very rich collections that can form the basis of fact and can make it possible for people to inform themselves. They don’t have to rely on another person’s interpretation,” said Todd Chavez, dean of the USF Libraries.

The curated collection pulls from decades-old acquisitions and includes unaltered photographs, newspaper archives, and personal narratives. The goal is to continue to build the portal into a larger collection that will help students, educators, researchers, and the general public learn about Black experiences in Florida. A recent addition to the collection features 3D laser scans recently completed by the USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections (DHHC) of the Jackson Rooming House, which hosted Black travelers and entertainers during segregation.

The AAE is a shift for the library, as it typically focuses on building comprehensive local and regional collections. It’s now looking to create meta-collections, allowing users to search multiple collections within a curated subject area. It took about a year to sort through hundreds of images and letters, write descriptions and identify themes.

“One of the most challenging things was identifying which materials best represent the African American experience in Florida,” said Tomaro Taylor, university librarian and head of Special Collections for the USF Libraries Tampa campus. “We have [many] collections that talk about Black people and African Americans in Florida, but they are not necessarily wholly representative of what one might consider an ‘experience.’”

The AAE was the first collaborative project between the USF Tampa and St. Petersburg campus libraries. As librarians sorted through the materials, they also shared a list of themes with an advisory committee of library liaisons, staff and faculty to help identify the most easily accessible categories. Six overarching categories emerged: Activism, Black-Owned Businesses, Community, Journalism, The Arts and General History.

“This project has the potential to bring history to life,” said David Shedden, assistant librarian and head of Special Collections and University Archives at the USF Nelson Poynter Memorial Library in St. Petersburg. “This collection of stories can help bring all of us into a conversation about the painful history of racism, but also about the inspiring stories of African American communities during the past 150 years.”

Thanks to a close partnership with St. Petersburg newspaper The Weekly Challenger, the portal also includes stories dating back to 1967. Every week, Shedden archives newly published articles, such as those related to the protests that followed the death of George Floyd last summer, to help make connections to the past.

“We build upon generations of not only history but also archivists and librarians who have come before us. At some point, all of us will be gone. We can just hope that what we are starting here can help not only the conversations now but in the future,” Shedden said.

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