African American Collections & Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill Libraries
MLS, University of Arizona, 2010
Photo courtesy of UNC Development Office
Making the Invisible Visible
At the 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo, sprinter Marilyn White and her teammates won the silver medal in a relay event. She later became an elementary school teacher, genealogist, and motivational speaker.
Nearly 50 years later, Chaitra Powell met White in Los Angeles through White’s affiliation with the California African American Genealogical Society and the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, where Powell was an Archivist Fellow. She was determined to organize and archive White’s collection and record her oral history.
Working with both organizations, Powell launched a fundraising campaign via phone call solicitations, mailings, grant applications, and a website—all done “out of my apartment,” Powell recalls. “I believe that I am privileged to be an archivist, and I am [committed] to support[ing] people in the preservation of their stories.”
That same commitment informs her work at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, where since 2014 she has been the African American collections and outreach archivist for the Southern Historical Collection (SHC), working to expand its relevance and scope.
Dating to 1844, SHC has 20 million items in more than 5,000 collections. But while African Americans are mentioned, their voices have “historically been absent, marginalized, or minimized,” notes Judy Panitch, director of library communications at the university. “It is a paradox that Chaitra refers to as being ‘invisible in the archive,’ and…she has tirelessly set out to address [it].”
Powell has done so by both bringing to light those voices in the collection and acquiring new materials, most notably through the African American Families Documentation Initiative.
An advocate of community-driven archiving, which encourages localities to preserve and curate their own history, she’s provided expert guidance to the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project and the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, among others. In San Antonio, Powell organized and led a daylong charrette with stakeholders to begin charting a course for the creation of an African American History Museum and Community Archive there.
She’s also leading the fundraising efforts sparked by a $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, awarded in 2016 to endow SHC’s archivist position and outreach. The SHC must raise $1.5 million toward a total of $2 million, Powell says. By the end of 2016, it had raised more than $508,000.
“I’ve heard great metaphors about people’s stories functioning like colored paint on an easel, elements in the periodic table, or spices in a cabinet,” Powell says. “We can’t make the best painting, most useful compound, or delicious dish without access to as many perspectives as possible.”