Category Archives: Black Diaspora Archive

Restoring a Neglected History: The Black Diaspora Archive

What is the Black experience in the Americas?

It’s a question that has not gotten due consideration, and one that helped to initiate the development of an archive focused on collecting and preserving resources that hold the history and experience of the African migration to the Americas.

A collaborative project between Black Studies, LLILAS Benson and the University of Texas Libraries, the Black Diaspora Archive (BDA) was conceptualized in 2013 to collect documentary, audiovisual, digital and artistic works related to the Black Diaspora of the Americas and Caribbean, focusing on people and communities with a shared ancestral connection to Africa. The archive encompasses historical publications, contemporary records, personal papers and rare material produced by and/or about people of African descent — including scholars, professionals, community groups, activists and artists.

While the geographic collecting area for the Black Diaspora is global, this collection is currently focused on materials documenting experiences from within the Americas and the Caribbean. Recognizing the broad potential in a partnership, Black Studies approached LLILAS Benson with the idea of creating an archive devoted to resources related to the Black Diaspora. Since its founding in 1921, the Benson Latin American Collection has actively collected Latin American materials that document communities and people of color, but it had never done so in a deliberate way. Principals in each unit recognized the common objectives and shared vision between them, and the mutual benefit of developing a dedicated archival holding of material related to the Black Diaspora. With additional support from the Libraries and the Office of the President, the Black Diaspora Archive came into being, and in the fall of 2015, Rachel Winston was named as its inaugural Black Diaspora archivist.

Thematically, the collection seeks to reflect art and art scholarship of the Black Diaspora, slavery in the Americas, ethnoracial empowerment and advocacy, and the personal archives of scholars and thought leaders. These types of records can include historical works, prints, digital and born-digital content, and other rare material.

Although the scope of the BDA’s acquisitions strategy can be categorized neatly into these simplified groupings, a brief overview of some of the resources included in the collections underscores how much is needed to be done in preserving and studying the Black experience and its historical impact on our culture and society. From documents on the slave trade in the Black Diaspora in New Spain, to oral history collections like that of the Shankleville freedom colony in East Texas, to the papers of influential Black intellectuals and activists like Edmund T. Gordon, John L. Warfield and Brenda Burt, to collections of art and art history, the BDA has just begun to scratch the surface in preserving and making accessible resources for beginning to examine the role of the Black Diaspora and Black scholarship in the Americas.

In addition to collecting, the BDA works to promote collection use and research through scholarly resources, exhibitions, community outreach, student programs and public engagement.

“As the primary manager of the Black Diaspora Archive, my ultimate charge is to provide a fuller understanding of the Black experience throughout the Americas and Caribbean with primary sources,” says Winston. “In the most traditional sense, this necessitates the acquisition, collection, preservation, and accessibility of archival records.”

“However, as our communities become more connected and technologically advanced, information access and information needs continue to evolve in ways that are increasingly less traditional,” continues Winston. “User needs of today, for example, live largely in the digital realm. In facilitating access to online content, the archivist has more of a responsibility to perform outreach and promote information literacy skills in an effort to preserve the integrity of our collections and meet user needs.”

“I am so excited for what we have been able to achieve so far and just the general sense of support on campus for this project that I am confident we will move forward, in order to move forward and achieve what’s possible, we need all of this outside support we can get.”


Consider supporting the Black Diaspora Archive with a gift.

Curating an Oral History of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority at The University of Texas at Austin

BY BRIANA MARIE DAVIS, CLASS OF 2021

Delta Xi of Spring 1966: Camilla Jackson, Beverly Robinson, Karen Williams, Pamiel Johnson-Gaskin, Carolyn Cole, Ruth Franklin, Mary Gordon, Linda Lewis, Mary Poston, Shirley Tennyson, Barbara Ward, Debbera Williams. Photo courtesy of Pamiel Johnson-Gaskin.

The honorable Delta Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. was the first Black Greek-letter organization to be established at The University of Texas at Austin. Sworn in on May 16, 1959, at high noon in the Queen Anne Room, this particular group of women is dripping in legacy, poignant programs, community service, and rich history. As an archivist-in-training, with the unique opportunity to not only archive an oral history but curate it from scratch, I see it as my duty to extract the essence and diversity of these highly valuable experiences among the Delta Xi women. This is a preview of a three-part blog series, accompanied by a digital archive that has been published and gathered throughout the summer of 2021.

What Is Oral History? The Beginning Processes of Oral History Curation

Oral history-making is a method of conducting historical research to preserve the experiences, significant historical events, and stories of narrators, recorded by a well-informed interviewer, with the purpose of making them accessible to future generations. Oral history not only helps us understand singular events in the past, but gives us a snapshot of any and all historical forces at play during a moment in time.

As an archivist-in-training and now an oral historian, I have been involved in the process of creating a blueprint for an oral recording documenting the first UT Black Greek organization from scratch. I hope that this specific process of interviewing can be applied to future endeavors to preserve the Delta Xi history and possibly the oral histories of other Greek-letter organizations at The University of Texas at Austin.

A Brief History of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated was founded by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle of St. Louis, Missouri, at Howard University on January 15, 1908. Over time, the organization expanded to many higher-learning institutions across the globe, growing to over 1,018 undergraduate and graduate chapters with the purpose of enriching the lives of Black women through service, networking, and social experiences. The sorority promotes unity, friendship, and academic achievement among its members; it seeks to continue and provide opportunities for higher education through scholarship and donation. As the first Black Greek-letter organization to be established at the University of Texas, the brand-new members of the Delta Xi Chapter were serenaded by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at their swearing-in.

AKA Christmas Party, 1966, photo courtesy of Pamiel Gaskin.

AKA Impact on Campus and Beyond

The impact of the signature projects created and facilitated by the Delta Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. reaches beyond the Forty Acres and into the lives of Austin mothers and their children. Working in East Austin, where, historically, the majority of African American Austinites have resided, since 1959 Delta Xi has held events to aid battered women, and to provide holiday parties, daycare, resources, encouragement, and toys for impoverished families.

Honorable Mentions, Members, and Findings

Lareatha H. Clay: Shankleville Community Oral History Collection

Lareatha H. Clay is a prominent oral historian and Delta Xi member (among other accolades). She has created the Shankleville Community Oral History Collection, an archival collection focused on preserving the spoken histories of Shankleville, a historic freedom colony in Newton County, located in East Texas. Clay is currently working to organize the Aya Symposium, an annual multidisciplinary event that explores the history of Texas freedom colonies.

DeMetris Sampson: Innervisions of Blackness

The Delta Xi Chapter has also had its influence in fine arts on campus. DeMetris Sampson, founder of the choral group Innervisions of Blackness and its first president, created the organization with the purpose of “educating, representing and exemplifying the soul of Black students through the scope of music.” Sampson was advised by Almetris Duren, a highly influential historical figure at UT Austin, to make the group official in 1974. Contrary to the rumor that Duren founded the group, Sampson (first president), Rene Hight (Delta Xi member, vice president, and pianist), Vanessa Ferguson (vice president), and Butler School of Music doctoral student Irlene Swain (director) were the first to spearhead the organization. Be sure to check out DeMetris Sampson’s inspiring interview as soon as the Delta Xi Oral History Collection is live to find out more about Innervisions of Blackness.

Barbara Dugas-Patterson: Cotton Bowl Queen

Photo courtesy of Barbara Dugas-Patterson, 1982.

Barbara Dugas-Patterson was crowned as Cotton Bowl Queen by popularity vote and support from Delta Xi members, thus participating in the Cotton Bowl Classic. The University of Texas was ranked #1 in the Southwest Conference at the time and competed against the University of Alabama.

Time and Oral History Making

Time consciousness, memory, subjectivity, explanation, and interpretation are some of the challenges that prevent oral history curation from achieving a concrete and complete picture of the past. To minimize confusion and add structure to the Delta Xi interviews, we devised a template with specific, open-ended questions. The questions revolved around experiences with social life on campus, community service, personal motivations to join the organization, and the legacy of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. The scope of the questions was limited to high school, senior year, college, and occasionally beyond. The flexible nature of the interview questions allowed for a diverse set of narratives to surface.

Despite the challenges of extracting histories dating back at least forty years and that are continuing to unfold, I’ve been able to make comparisons depending on the decade each participant pledged and their overall perceptions of racial inclusion at the University of Texas. Participants who pledged the Delta Xi Chapter in the 1960s viewed joining a Black sorority as a means of survival in a challenging sociopolitical atmosphere, freshly recovering from outdated ideas regarding Black women in higher education. Conversely, members who joined in the 1970s and 1980s saw joining a Black sorority as an elective, yet all participants have found that they joined Alpha Kappa Alpha to find women just like themselves in a university whose Black student population is still only 4 percent. To stay up to date with the Delta Xi Chapter, I encourage you to check out their social media: @Texas_AKAs.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Probate Show, circa 1984. Photo courtesy of Barbara Dugas-Patterson.

Final Thoughts

Recording the oral histories of African American women has been one of the most rewarding opportunities of my life. The quote “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will,” by Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, has reverberated throughout my psyche while curating this collection. Indeed, this has been the first oral history project for and by Black women at the University of Texas, but I encourage all Black people to take a front seat in the preservation of their personal histories. One of the most impacting sentiments expressed at the Aya Symposium this past summer is the need to preserve family documents, photographs, and memorabilia. Participation in repositories and history-making through the lens of African Americans is crucial to the historical narrative of the Black community as a whole. Please check out our digital archive when it is completed in the months to come. Thank you to the University of Texas, Texas Libraries, the Black Diaspora Archive, and the Delta Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. for allowing this project to blossom and continue.

View Parts I, II, and III of this blog series


Briana Marie Davis is a recent graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with a BA in Anthropology and African American Studies. She carried out this oral history project during an internship at the Black Diaspora Archive. Davis is a problem-solving, creative, convivial individual who enjoys singing and playing piano in venues around Austin, Texas, in her free time. She hopes to be of service to her community by uplifting groups that are marginalized through her research and artistic expression.

“Knowledge”: Online Exhibit Celebrates Benson Centennial and Diversity of Thought in the Americas

In Nuestra América (1891), Cuban poet and philosopher José Martí calls for a pan–Latin American identity that grounds itself in the need to value autochthonous knowledge: “Knowing is what counts. To know one’s country and govern it with that knowledge is the only way to free it from tyranny. The European university must bow to the American university. The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more.”

A new online exhibition, A Hemisphere of Knowledge: A Benson Centennial Exhibit, accessible in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, explores the implications of Martí’s words across time and cultures, using a wealth of resources available at the Benson Latin American Collection.

“This exhibit, divided into six sub-themes, seeks to present different types of knowledge production from the Americas while recognizing that our universality comes from relations based upon diversity, and that these relations, like cultures themselves, are constantly changing,” said Daniel Arbino, head of collection development at the library and curator of the exhibit. In conceiving the exhibit, Arbino sought to examine “the diverse production of knowledge from the many cultures that make up what we now call the Americas.” He adds that “the exhibition considers this knowledge against the backdrop and legacies of hegemony, thereby situating it within the power dynamics of colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. A Hemisphere of Knowledge is intentionally political because it values cultural beliefs that have been dismissed due to legacies of power.”

Learn more about the Benson Centennial at benson100.org.


Above: Knowledge, by Terry Boddie

LLILAS Benson Launches Curriculum Site

By ALBERT A. PALACIOS

In the spring of 2019, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections partnered with the Urban Teachers Program at the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education to develop and provide free, online access to high school lesson plans. The goal was to bring together the historical perspectives of underrepresented groups, current scholarship, and digitized holdings of the Benson Latin American Collection and Latin American partners. Thanks to a Department of Education Title VI grant, LLILAS Benson was able to create a portal via UT Libraries’ open-access repositories to make these resources widely available to teachers.

Department of Curriculum and Instruction chair Dr. Cinthia Salinas walks “Social Studies Methods” master’s students through a teaching exercise using a pictorial account of Moctezuma and Cortés’s meeting from the Benson’s Genaro García Collection, March 19, 2019. Courtesy of Albert A. Palacios.

For the past two years, College of Education graduate students have been creating World History and World Geography units for use in high school classrooms. The underlying principle for these teaching materials is that students are able to understand, and then subvert, dominant historical narratives in Latin American, U.S. Latinx, and African Diaspora history given the marginalized perspectives the lesson plans highlight. Using the Benson’s digital collections, they have focused on a variety of topics, including women in colonial Latin America, the Mexican Revolution, and the Cold War in Central and South America (publication in process).

Collection materials from the Benson’s Rare Books and Genaro García collections, and El Salvador’s Museum of the Word and Image’s Armed Conflict Collection.

The collaboration and site has since broadened to include other disciplines, audiences, and learning objectives. LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship staff has been partnering with faculty and graduate students in Latin American Studies, Art and Art History, Spanish and Portuguese, Mexican American Studies, and History to design Digital Humanities–focused lesson plans and assignments for undergraduate teaching. Work is also ongoing to publish technical capacity-building teaching and learning resources for graduate students, digital humanists, and archival professionals at UT Austin and beyond.

Banner image for platform tutorial, “Presenting Geospatial Research with ArcGIS,” based on colonial holdings from the Genaro García Collection.

The site also helps instructors and students find and browse through LLILAS Benson’s digital resources. It consolidates under its Primary Sources section all existing LLILAS Benson digital scholarship projects, digitized collections, and exhibitions. Visitors can filter these resources by grade level, date range, course subject, and country to find relevant primary and secondary sources on their research and teaching focus.

Banner image for Fidel Castro’s Building Inauguration Speeches geospatial exhibition. Curated by Karla Roig, Association of Research Libraries’ Digital and Inclusive Excellence Undergraduate Fellow (2018–2019).

Explore the site through http://curriculum.llilasbenson.utexas.edu/. The interdisciplinary collaborations and site’s development were generously funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI Program and LLILAS Benson’s Excellence Fund for Technology and Development in Latin America. This resource was conceived, designed, and launched by: 

  • Lindsey Engleman, Public Engagement Coordinator (2014–2019), LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections
  • Tiffany Guridy, Public Engagement Coordinator, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections
  • Delandrea S. Hall, Doctoral Candidate, Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education
  • Rodrigo Leal, Website Designer and Student Technician(Spring 2019), LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections
  • Casz McCarthy, Public Engagement Graduate Research Assistant, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections
  • Albert A. Palacios, Digital Scholarship Coordinator, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections
  • Cinthia S. Salinas, Professor and Chair, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education
  • UT Libraries Digital Stewardship (Anna Lamphear and Brittany Centeno)

A Firsthand Experience in the Black Diaspora Archive

Natalie Hill is one of the inaugural members of the Consuelo Artaza and Dr. Carlos Castañeda Diversity Alliance Residency Program. She is currently in her second semester of the residency.

Rachel Winston and Natalie Hill.
Rachel Winston and Natalie Hill.

While I’ve been working in the Black Diaspora Archive (BDA) for just under two months now, I’ve already experienced and learned so much. BDA’s mission is to document the Black experience in the Americas and Caribbean. Under the guidance of our inaugural Black Diaspora Archivist, Rachel Winston, I’ve been given the opportunity to do my part in accomplishing this mission.

Currently, I’m processing the Judith Bettelheim Papers and making that collection available for researchers to use. Dr. Judith Bettelheim is a retired university professor, curator, and art historian, specializing in Afro-Caribbean festival and performance arts. Throughout her long and accomplished career, Dr. Bettelheim has helped to expand the field of art history beyond the limited lens of Western art and has pushed for the increased prominence of African and African Diasporic art in published scholarship.

Caribbean festival performer from the Judith Bettelheim collection.
Caribbean festival performer from the Judith Bettelheim collection.

Correspondence from the Judith Bettelheim collection.
Correspondence from the Judith Bettelheim collection.

Among other materials, the Judith Bettelheim Papers include handwritten field notebooks and interview transcripts from her trips to Caribbean nations, hundreds of photo slides of Caribbean festival performers, and research relating to her exhibitions and publications on Cuban visual artists like José Bedia and Eduardo “Choco” Roca Salazar. Being able to handle these records has allowed me to gain a better understanding not only of Dr. Bettelheim, but also of the people and places on which she’s focused so much of her life’s work. Preserving cultural heritage and making the records of historically underrepresented individuals and groups widely accessible is definitely a privilege, and it makes coming to work every day something to look forward to.

Photo from the Judith Bettelheim collection.
Photo from the Judith Bettelheim collection.

Beyond gaining valuable hands-on experience with archival materials and all the steps present in making them ready for research use, I’ve also been able to shadow Rachel in her daily work and better understand what it means to be an archivist not simply in theory, but in practice. And I’ve learned that depending on the day, it means a lot of different things – deinstalling exhibitions, providing reference support in the Reading Room, preparing materials for the next exhibition, visiting classes to discuss the work we do as archival professionals and how students can incorporate archival practices into their own documentary efforts, installing a new exhibition, and so on.

In my short time in the Black Diaspora Archive, I’ve already found myself involved with an active and dedicated community focused on providing a space for those who historically have not had any and a voice for those who have often been silenced. It’s been an inspiring and eye-opening experience, and I’m looking forward to becoming even more involved over the coming months.