February 17, 2018

Steven Fullwood and Lela J. Sewell-Williams | Movers & Shakers 2003

Life Savers


Preservation is one of the great missions and challenges for librarianship. But for the African American community, the preservation issue is even more pressing, as untold archival treasures crucial to understanding African American history are likely moldering in attics or being put on the curb. So it’s a good thing the profession has librarians such as Steven Fullwood and Lela J. Sewell-Williams. Not only are Fullwood and Sewell-Williams working to preserve the past, they are also shaping the future by bringing greater awareness of the need to preserve black history. “It is only logical,” says Sewell-Williams, “to want to preserve the culture one is helping to shape.”

Fullwood happened into librarianship rather by chance. Not satisfied working as a full-time journalist, he turned his volunteer work at a local library branch in Toledo into a full-time job, then decided to pursue an MLS. “Librarianship by default,” says Fullwood, “but it was meant to be because of my love of books, literacy, and public service.”

Now a manuscripts librarian in the New York Public Library’s acclaimed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Fullwood has proven to be both an activist and a visionary. In 2000, he founded the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive. “The story of the BGLA is a simple one,” he says. “While researching a grant to process the Gay Men of African Descent’s records (NYC) in 1999, I discovered that many research institutions were not actively collecting black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, same-gender-loving, queer, questioning, in-the-life cultural materials.” What this meant to Fullwood was that an entire chapter of African American history was in danger of being lost forever. Now in the collection phase, Fullwood says he has brought together about 15 linear feet of materials produced by individuals and institutions in the United States and abroad. He is amazed by how African Americans living alternative lifestyles have been able to articulate their lives through writing, music, political activism, a
nd cultural organizations.

“I chose to come into the archival profession because of my interest in the preservation of records artifacts that tell the story of members of the African Diaspora,” says Sewell-Williams, who once worked with Fullwood at the Schomburg. She is now assistant curator of manuscripts at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. A trained dancer and raised in a family where a sense of history was emphasized, Sewell-Williams has combined her passions through work on an African American Dance Archive. “As a member of the dance community, I have witnessed the loss of valuable records that specifically tell the story of the impact members of the African Diaspora have had on the art,” explains Sewell-Williams. “Dance is a dynamic art that is not easily recorded, but the existence of an archival initiative that is solely interested in the preservation of the experiences of a specific group of practitioners may encourage more of an effort toward its safeguarding.”

Together, Fullwood and Sewell-Williams aim to capture an even broader cultural movement with the Hip-Hop Archive Project. “Hip-hop isn’t simply music, it’s a cultural movement,” explains Fullwood. “And unlike the way some black cultural products have been handled or mishandled in the past, we as librarians and archivists have the opportunity to help nail down the history so that historians can write accurately about it.” According to Sewell-Williams, “The preservation of hip-hop culture is based upon the reality that early hip-hop is a reflection of my generation. I wore the sneakers, the clothes, and practiced break dancing. It was only natural to want to preserve this cultural phenomenon that I was not only helping perpetuate but that was a product of the black community.”

Unfortunately, the Hip-Hop Archive has suffered since September 11 from a lack of funding. But collecting for the project continues, and with the duo’s commitment and positive energy, as well as the commitment of fellow librarians, it will surely get back on track. “Fortunately for me,” Fullwood notes, “I am surrounded by immensely talented and intellectually gifted people.”

Fullwood says he is honored to contribute so much to culture, a feeling echoed by Sewell-Williams. “I consider myself to be fortunate to be a member of the cultural preservation field,” she says. “It is exciting work that is valuable and unquestionably interesting.”



Steven Fullwood

Current Position:
Manuscripts Librarian, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Degree: MLS, School of Library and Information Studies, Clark Atlanta University, 1997

Lela J. Sewell-Williams

Current Position:
Assistant Curator of Manuscripts, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC

Degree: MA, American History with a concentration in Archives and Museum and Historical Editing, Duquesne University, 1996

Favorite Quote: “A people without a knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey