Archival Moments: The Unforgettable Mrs McGhee

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Historians, like me, feel especially at home in archives, although plenty of other scholars also use them. We look forward to our visits and get frustrated when they aren’t possible (like now!) While there are catalogues and finders’ guides to assist us, part of the fun is that you don’t know what you will find. Below are a few examples of archival surprises that I have had in my time.

Using trustworthy contemporaneous sources is basic to historical research, but it’s easier said than done. For historians of the distant past, the records that remain can be scant and partial, and may often require not just fluent command of another language, but technical expertise in reading arcane scripts. Some of the most detailed accounts of the Tudor court in England, for example, are derived from Venetian archives that contain encoded intelligence reports from the republic’s envoy and spy network. On more than one occasion, I demonstrated an inability to translate a foreign language; be it classical or medieval Latin or modern French. This eventually encouraged my study of modern American history. But even English language sources can offer challenges.

My first serious encounter with an archive came while I was writing my Master’s thesis on the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, a key episode in the build-up to the American Revolution. I ventured into the British Library, which, back then, was still in its British Museum location with the fabled, reading room where Karl Marx had written Das Kapital. I ordered from the catalogue some political pamphlets published at the time by supporters and critics of the controversial, new taxation policy for the American colonies. Most arrived promptly but one was missing. Eventually, a librarian came over. There was a problem, he explained. Yes, the library did have the only known copy of this pamphlet in the world, but — and it was a “big but,” — its pages were uncut. (This task was sometimes left to the purchaser in earlier times.) Perhaps, he gently suggested, I might interpret such ultra-pristine condition as a sign that this was not the most influential tract! He added that the library’s own records showed that no other scholar had ever requested to see it. As I pondered this, he pursed his lips and then further explained that the delicate, page-cutting process would take some weeks and that there was a chance that the item might already be damaged, or it might incur damage during the process, despite the care taken. His eyebrows rose heavenwards as if signalling that we were all in the hands of cruel Fate. Was this pamphlet truly vital to my research? he asked. As a novice historian, I diffidently replied: probably not.

I have researched a lot of different topics since then, although the Civil Rights Movement, especially the struggle in the post-war South, has predominated. I got used to the “alphabet soup” of organisations and acronyms that you have to know. Unexpectedly, one of my first archival stops was in Madison, Wisconsin: not exactly a landmark in textbooks on the Movement, but precisely because Deep South authorities were so hostile, prudent activists decided to keep their organisational records out of state. The Wisconsin State Historical Society eventually became home to the Social Action History Collection which chronicled the work of many groups. My focus was the Highlander Folk School, an adult education centre in Tennessee that hosted training workshops and developed an adult literacy program that prepared people to pass the literacy tests required in several states for voter registration. Highlander used to tape its workshops, and while I spent some of my time listening to these through headphones, there was so much material I eventually ordered a selection from the Society.
This made me aware of a persistent problem for all archivists. The original Highlander tapes were made on large reel-to-reel machines. By the time I visited, these had been transferred to audio-cassette, but as some of you will know from first-hand experience, this technology has since been supplanted by compact discs and now, in many cases, by online digital streaming. Cassette players are not as ubiquitous as they once were. The transfer of such material to new media is costly and each transient technological form has its own vulnerabilities. Today, there are major projects striving to ensure that the early computer records of even national governments are transferred from deteriorating electromagnetic storage to more durable digital files, but it is an unending challenge. Even at a personal level, people are being asked to consider their digital legacy in order to save all those photos now stored on social media or “clouds.”

While in Madison, I decided to look at the records for two civil rights groups — the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (referred to in movement circles as ‘Snick’) — whose voter registration work paralleled, and in some cases, converged with Highlander’s. It was dangerous work. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered while working on a CORE project during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Aware of the risks faced by their staff, SNCC and CORE paid for a private long-distance phone line (known as a Wide Area Telephone System or WATS line) to ensure that fieldworkers could report problems quickly. In Madison I read the daily WATS reports of drive-by shootings, summary arrests, telephoned death threats, and church bombings. A colleague had wryly suggested I look at the Miriam Feingold papers. She had worked for CORE in Louisiana, and in the archive, I discovered that when she was thrown in jail in Plaquemine parish, she smuggled out details of the conditions using the only paper available. An archivist told me that the toilet paper was now so delicate that it was no longer made available to researchers, but it had been microfilmed!

Eventually, my research took me more predictably to Atlanta, Georgia. I was still studying the Citizenship Schools. When Highlander was forced to close by Tennessee authorities in 1961, the Schools programme transferred to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). My research was part of a new wave of scholarship that began to recover the forgotten stories of female activists. Septima Clark, a lifelong African American freedom fighter, was a key figure in the Citizenship Schools. Born in 1898, she had helped to develop the Schools in the late 1950s, and went to work at SCLC when the programme transferred. Clark, alongside other colleagues like her cousin Bernice Robinson and Dorothy Cotton, travelled the South recruiting volunteer teachers. The people chosen were seen as potential leaders, even when their formal education was limited. The programme only paid expenses but even this small amount of money could mean a lot. To get the money, each teacher had to submit a class register listing the name and age of everyone who attended and basic details like date and location. The records at the Martin Luther King Center consisted mainly of these registers, along with some correspondence.

Working my way through the registers is a good example of the kind of “leg work” that historians do in order to develop their understanding. Individually, most were not compelling reading. But they were organised by state and collectively, they gave you a pretty good snapshot of which communities had been movement centres. Many places mentioned were familiar SCLC battlegrounds, like Birmingham, Alabama, but others, like Greenwood, Mississippi, were much more associated with SNCC’s work in the Delta. It was while returning from Citizenship School training in Georgia that the famed activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, was stopped with other volunteers in the small Mississippi town of Winona. She was arrested, and brutally beaten in jail. The Citizenship School coordinator in Mississippi, Annelle Ponder, had her jaw broken in the same incident. Hamer described her own systematic beating by her jailers on national television, when she testified to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Fannie Lou Hamer probably remains the most celebrated of the women of the Mississippi movement. From the archives, I set out to discover more. But it was not always an easy task. One day I came across a very faded register. The programme used the cheapest kind of coloured copier paper, which softened and faded to a tissue-like consistency. This form had been completed in pencil almost thirty years earlier and buried in a manilla file. The writing in the columns for date, location and name and age of student was very faint, but my eye was caught by some writing on the back, where there were some straggling, extra lines of script. It may not have been Sanskrit or medieval Latin, but it took me hours to decipher.

The writer, Mrs Laura McGhee, explained that it had been impossible to hold all her scheduled classes because of the sharp racial tensions locally. The 1964 Civil Rights Act had just been passed and local white violence was even worse than usual. The church that had agreed to host her school had been fire-bombed. Her sons had been arrested and she had gone down to the jail to check they were okay. Night-riders had fired into her home, and she was keeping a loaded shotgun by the door. Her writing was hard to read, but the story was certainly dramatic. The final sentence began with the word “sorry” and after a twenty-minute struggle, I had the rest. It read. “Sorry about the hand-writing, they broke my hand.”

Reading those words scrawled in pencil made my hair stand and made the widespread bravery of these freedom fighters almost tangible.

But archival research always works in tandem with one’s reading of the unending flow of published scholarship. The early 1990s saw some major books on the Mississippi movement and those that covered the Greenwood experience revealed that there might be more to Laura McGhee’s story than just one instance of police brutality and racist terrorism. For one thing, I learned that she was the sister of a civil rights activist called Gus Courts, who had been shot by white gunmen outside his store in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1955. He survived, but continuing harassment eventually forced him to relocate to Chicago. Laura’s family had been taking a stand for freedom for a long time. She too endured both economic and physical harassment on her fifty-acre farm, yet knowing the risks, when the local freedom struggle gathered renewed pace in the early Sixties, she participated fully and so did her children. In 1963, her farm hosted a folk music festival that featured white stars like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger as well as the SNCC Freedom Singers. The McGhees were local legends.

More significantly, movement veterans recalled that on more than one occasion, the fearless Citizenship School teacher reacted to police mistreatment in what might be interpreted as a departure from the nonviolence urged by Martin Luther King. (This would be a mistake since King, like Gandhi, was on record as insisting that outside of organised demonstrations, nonviolence did not deny his followers the right to self-defence). What is certain is that Laura McGhee struck back, and she did so to good effect. Her punch was hard enough to knock her police assailant back down the corridor of the jailhouse when he refused to let her see her sons. I could never mesh the story together completely but I have retained the suspicion that when Mrs McGhee wrote “they broke my hand,” she might have omitted the detail that the fracture occurred when the hand was in collision with a deputy’s jaw. My initial reaction of horror and pity has settled into one of abiding admiration. But that first moment in the archive is one I still cherish. As Americans continue the fight for the right to vote, they should remember: Laura McGhee is watching.

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