Being present

Photos of George Wallace “standing in the schoolhouse doorway” at the University of Alabama in June 1963 reflect the Civil Rights era in the Jim Crow South.  The segregationist Governor physically demonstrated his opposition to enrollment by two Black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, in the all-white academic institution.

Federal officials played their part in what President John F. Kennedy described that evening in his remarks in Washington as a “moral crisis” as he urged support for upholding the law.  After the President mobilized the National Guard, Wallace stepped aside and the two students entered the university to register for summer classes.

Three decades earlier in Washington, DC, Oscar Priest sought service in the dining area of the U.S. House of Representatives for his aide, a Black man.  As a U.S. legislator, Priest, one of the first Blacks elected to the House in the 20th Century, knew the aides and friends of white Congressmen could dine in the facility.  But his effort to integrate the dining area failed.  Key leaders blocked him from doing what white Congressmen did for their aides and guests.

In his role on the House Accounts Committee, Rep. Lindsay C. Warren of North Carolina said of the House dining facility in 1934 that, “The restaurant has never served negro employees or visitors, nor will it so long as I have anything to do with it.”  Warren began his political career in his state legislature, then served eight terms in the U.S. Congress.

As a state legislator, Warren opposed the 19th Amendment.  Ratification by Tennessee gave white women the vote in August 1920.  An entry on a North Carolina history website noted that “Although in many ways a Progressive, Warren was in some ways an anti-Progressive.”

The Southern lawyer supported New Deal agricultural policies and served briefly as Speaker. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Warren Comptroller General of the United States. As head of the General Accounting Office (GAO), Warren initiated much-needed changes in its mission work after World War II. A 2017 GAO public affairs office blog post offers a brief summary of Warren’s career.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Blacks faced racism in commercial enterprises throughout Washington, DC.  Otha Miller, who held a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, came to the nation’s capital from Illinois in 1938.   Miller later told a reporter about going to a haberdasher’s to try to buy shirts.  And to a restaurant to eat lunch.  Staff at the store immediately told Miller he could not shop there.  He ate at a restaurant for a few days but then was barred from dining there. He protested but “whites only” policies remained in effect.

Otha Miller and others like him still are present in your workplaces, whether you work for an academic, corporate, governmental, or non-profit employer.  People who started jobs in the 1970s had chances to talk to and learn from people who started in the 1940s.

If you joined the workforce in 2000, you could walk around and get to know fellow employees who had started in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Valeria Gist.  As work generations overlap, you learn stories passed down by word of mouth.  Oral history interviews reflect some but not all.

In cross-generational conversations, we catch informal, spontaneous glimpses of the lives of those who went before.  This includes the support staff at universities, businesses, and government agencies who preserved the materials researchers see in reference rooms.  And who now ensure preservation of electronic records.  This is separate from but related to whom writers thank when they publish history or political science books.

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), agency historian Jessie Kratz published a series of Black History Month posts in 2016 which included the agency’s history during the 1940s.  Jessie stated that,

Like many government agencies, the National Archives has a checkered past when it comes to hiring and promoting African Americans.

In the early years of the 1930s and 1940s, black employees faced extreme prejudices and were mostly limited to more manual and unskilled behind the scene jobs. Very few African Americans held professional archivist positions, and those who were able to get those jobs were not promoted at the same pace as their white colleagues.

The Civil Rights era saw black employees begin to make greater gains in securing higher profile positions.

The series highlighted employees’ perspectives, drawing on oral history interviews, records, and contemporaneous reporting. Kirsten Dillon looked at the career of genealogical expert James D. Walker, whose later work in the 1970s received laudatory press coverage but who faced hardship and discrimination at the start of his Federal career.

According to Walker, he and other black employees often had supervisors who tried to prevent the promotion of minorities within the Archives. Walker recalled talking to other African American workers who felt they would never be recognized for their work or promoted simply because of their race.

….In every position he held, he conducted himself professionally yet challenged the institutions that he felt could be improved.

I shared Kirsten’s NARA blog post in a knowledge worker forum, noting in my message to the Listserv that “The essay is drawn in part from my longtime friend and former NARA Presidential Libraries colleague Rod Ross’s oral history interview with Walker in 1985.”  I asked, “Are any other employers of librarians, archivists, records managers taking a look back at institutional history and employee issues?”  No one replied but Tweets showed news links on related issues.

At NARA, you meet James Walker and Walter Hill and many others through history and those who knew them. And in the recollections of Walter Hill’s daughter, Alexis Hill, a current NARA employee.

Whether you can research and write about employees’ varied reactions and recollections or just hear them, you can walk the floor in your own places of employment.  I did this at NARA.  And at GAO, where I worked from 1990 to 2016.  One of the voices I heard at GAO was that of Otha Miller, who began work in 1942 at what now is the Government Accountability Office.

His voice is in a lawsuit he filed against GAO.  And the Otha Miller Award established by the GAO chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG).  Analyst George Duncan (pictured) received the Otha Miller Award in 2013.  You see him in photos I took at a GAO BIG event in 2015 when A’Lelia Bundles spoke about Madam C. J. Walker.

In “Persistence Wins Bias Fight” (October 7, 1981) Washington Post reporter Eugene Robinson described Otha Miller’s experiences in Washington in the 1940s.

He went to work as a GS-2 file clerk in an old GAO building on U Street NW where most of the agency’s black employees were assigned. A part of it was called “the plantation” by the black workers. It did not take Miller long to notice that virtually all the blacks were doing clerical work in dead-end GS-1 or GS-2 jobs and always were passed over for promotions.

Miller advocated and agitated for equity throughout his time at GAO.  Robinson reported that the Transportation Division clerk argued for not having traditionally segregated staff Christmas parties, one for white, one for Black employees. (Contextual note from my research as GAO’s historian: GAO’s Postal Accounts Division, which Warren moved to North Carolina during World War II, also reflected recreational segregation. Black GAO Postal Accounts Division employees could not bowl in the white employees’ league.)

Miller’s advocacy played a part in GAO moving its annual golf tournament from a Virginia country club that barred Blacks to a public course.  (Robinson’s article quotes Miller: “and a colored man won first prize, too.”) But promotions within the Transportation Division prior to its transfer from GAO to the executive branch in 1975 remained a challenge for Black employees.

Members of GAO’s Black Caucus picketed outside the GAO headquarters building in 1971.  In 1972, amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended its coverage to Federal employees. Miller filed a class action lawsuit, joined by Hortense Tarrar and by Nestor Calabria, an Asian-American GAO employee.  In 1992, my boss and predecessor as GAO’s historian, Roger Trask, interviewed three former top officials (all white men) of the GAO Transportation Division.

Thomas Sullivan, director of GAO’s Transportation Division from 1962 until 1975, talked in the oral history interview about a conversation in the 1960s with a GAO official about the unit he headed.  He described being called upstairs back then to talk to the Assistant to the Comptroller General.

He was advising me of the problem that I had downstairs. He was referring to the race situation.

I must have looked shocked. I did not know I had a race situation. I had black people that worked for me and I had white people that worked for me and they all seemed happy.

The interview, unfortunately scanned out of order in key places by contractors working for the library in the 1990s, includes references to “outsiders” from Chicago in passages about employees picketing the GAO building in 1971.  But Fred Shafer, Sullivan’s deputy, noted that the Black employees were not asking for “anything more than the opportunity to show that they could do a higher level of work and advance into the higher positions.” Shafer added, “Statistically, the bulk of our low-paid clerical work force was black, and the bulk of our higher paid–and by that I mean a journeyman grade of 8–was white. Those were the technicians.”

In 1981, as Robinson reported, “the government acknowledged — in clipped, emotionless prose — ‘the historic underrepresentation on a percentage basis’ of blacks — and white women — in upper-level jobs at the division.'” The settlement included a $4.2 million payment to 500 present and former GAO employees and non-monetary provisions.

Charles Bowsher, who took charge of GAO in 1981, worked closely with Assistant Comptroller General Francis X. Fee to improve conditions in GAO regional and headquarters offices.  In researching Comptroller General Bowsher’s tenure, I described how Valeria Gist, a Black woman, became the first “minority” auditor promoted to GS-13 in GAO’s Boston region. The Boston office then reflected an old-style, white male-defined but clearly inapproprite management culture.

In talking to Val (whom I featured here earlier), I asked about her experiences working in the 1980s in a city known for clashes over busing and racism.  After leaving Boston, she rose through the ranks to GS-15 level pay and handled important assignments in GAO mission and staff offices in Washington before retiring in 2007.  I included Val’s story in the history of Bowsher’s time at GAO that I wrote during the tenure of the present Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro.

You have similar opportunities to be a listener as a designated or unofficial memory worker in your own workplaces.  Those who went before are present where we work, in work culture, process changes, workers’ memories.  Being present among your colleagues is a choice, regardless of your job function, and one worth considering.

In 2001, when Ron Stroman became GAO Managing Director, Opportunity and Inclusiveness, he worked on the 6th floor of the agency’s headquarters building.  A chance hallway encounter soon after he started 8 years on the job led to a collegial partnership.  This included my doing research with Ron on Lindsay Warren’s time in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the North Carolina legislature. And talking about past and current events

Not everyone is in a position to share memory work with executives such as Ron who ask about the history of workplace issues.  If you’re job-secure (I met Ron two years before I was retirement eligible), consider how you can place the present in the context of the past.  And provide analysis as a historian or research support as a librarian or archivist that helps colleagues do their jobs.

When I joined GAO, many of the librarians and other knowledge workers were BIPOC.  I didn’t know in the 1990s I would have a chance to team up with Ron to talk about history and organizational culture.  (I often stopped by his office randomly, as he did mine.)  But I knew the value of seeking out and hearing the voices of mission and mission support staff as I studied the past.

I was job secure but even if job precarity affects what you feel you can do, you can still walk the floor and listen to colleagues.  Not only are their predecessors present in what is passed on through the years, so are their families and friends.  Listening helps you move beyond your work on catalogs, finding aids, appraisal, review, research, audits and other traditional work assignments.

As you work with Finding Aids as an archivist or historian, remember the support staff who created the foundational items, file names, and file plans.  In my first Federal job, two Black women trained me in office work. (I’m still a shy Introvert, but less camera shy now than at 20.)  Their teaching example showed me the value of asking and answering questions. I carried with me into my later jobs as archivist and Federal historian what I learned about backstage office labor up and down the ranks.

Finding Aids show arrangement and folder lists that reflect creating-office labor which few historians, or even archivists, acknowledge.  Labor that enabled office workers–the first users–to find information, until the 1990s mostly on paper, later increasingly electronic. Pulling then-active records to reference or study their own prior work; preserving correspondence; following file plans created by other support staff.  None warrant erasure, all deserve acknowledgment.

As a historian, archivist or librarian, you can walk physical or virtual workplace hallways.  And look for opportunities to bridge past, present, and future, in ways beyond what you learned in the classroom. And honor those up and down the ranks who went before, still living or now gone.  Even if you don’t know their names.

Thank you, Otha, Claudette, Marie, Herb, John, Valeria, Rick, Ben, Wanda, Delaney, Pat, Orlando, Ethel, Karen, Calvin, Gary, Debbie.

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Being present

  1. Philip says:

    Things had not greatly improved on the 1990s especially in Richard Brown’s GS&C and especially in JoAnn Lieb Classen’s Office of Budget where rampant and blatant racial discrimination existed. Then came a series of discrimination complaints filed against Classen, letters and visits to congressional committees and articles in various newspapers (The Hill and Roll Call). Classen was eventually removed.


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