Nortonsmith was originally hired as a Project Archivist for the CRRJ, tasked with compiling anti-Black homicide case records from the Jim Crow era into a collection to allow for accessibility and trend study by researchers. In the article, she discusses her work and the overarching goals of both representing the work of the CRRJ while also maintaining “the dignity and respect for victims and their families.”
To do this, Nortonsmith and the rest of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive team centralized the victims’ lives and stories, not just the crime that was committed against them. In her article, she discusses approaching each record as referring to a real person and not an abstract notion. Often that included discovering and using victims’ real names, instead of alternate names or misspellings that are common in the records.
“We wanted to build an archive which illuminated CRRJ’s work and that led us to put the victim and their story foremost in arrangement, description, and access,” Nortonsmith wrote.
The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archives contains investigative records from federal and local entities as well as records from advocacy groups and letters from family and community members advocating for justice. They also included death certificates, newspaper articles, photos, and more. Taken together, these records provide a complete story of the prevalence of anti-Black violence and murder in the Jim Crow South from 1930-1954 and the failures of the justice system to solve these crimes and punish the perpetrators.
As archivists, Nortonsmith and her team made sure these records were catalogued and organized in a way that included and highlighted all parts of the victims’ life and story. Working with such subject matter was difficult, but “knowing that we were helping to bring these stories forward once again went a long way toward keeping us moving forward,” Nortonsmith wrote.
While Pride is recognized as a protest, it can also be a time of celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community and queer identity. Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections is fortunate to steward the records of The Theater Offensive, a queer performing arts organization which is still alive and thriving in Boston today and will soon celebrate its 35th year of operation in 2024. Founded in 1989 by Abe Rybeck and other artists, the Theater Offensive strived to combine art and activism for the benefit of the LGBTQIA+ community throughout New England and, eventually, nationally.
Since its founding, they have put on numerous performances, festivals, and community programs. Of note in Northeastern’s digital repository is the performance of Pure PolyEsther: A Biblical Burlesque, an adaptation of the story of Esther from the Old Testament as a part of Purim celebrations. Written by Rybeck, Pure PolyEsther was described as a “hot, flamboyant Mardi Gras…[that] melts the edge off the bitter New England winter.” It is an intersectional celebration of both Jewish and queer traditions.
The Theater Offensive has also uplifted LGBTQIA+ youth with their True Colors program and their youth outreach performances. These have included the Living with AIDS Theater Project’s Lessons from the Heart, which educated teens on ways to combat the AIDS epidemic, highlighting an intergenerational conversation and relationship between queer youth and adults that remains incredibly valuable to this day.
The Theater Offensive continues to be an important cultural institution in Boston, and its records illustrate a rich and robust past that has championed queer creativity and community. To learn more about the Theater Offensive’s work not just this Pride Month but all year round, check out the resources available through the digital repository and University Archives and Special Collections!
At 2:49 p.m. on April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just over four hours after the start of the race. The aftermath of this disaster, on what should have been a joyful occasion, was devastating. Three spectators were killed, and 281 other people were injured. Many people in Boston and surrounding communities were affected and sought to find ways of healing from this trauma.
Among those seeking to make sense of this event were Northeastern English professors Dr. Ryan Cordell and Dr. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. They noted the strong reactions in their students, including those not directly impacted by the bombing, and decided to collect public stories of the larger Boston community. They hired a team of graduate students to gather and organize contributions, with the goal of creating an online community archive reflecting on this event. Two graduate students from this original team, Dr. Jim McGrath and Dr. Alicia Peaker, later became co-directors of this project. Along the way, collaborations were established with the NPR radio station, WBUR, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Public Library. The goal of this collection, later entitled Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive, was to construct a public memory to foster a better sense of community in the wake of this tragedy.
The Our Marathon collection includes nearly 8,000 items, with materials ranging from letters to collages to oral histories and other first-person accounts collected by those who founded the project. This archive bears some resemblance to other projects that used crowdsourced materials in response to a public trauma, such as the September 11 Digital Archive (created in 2001) and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (created in 2005 following hurricanes Katrina and Rita). All three of these projects also focus on the places where traumatic events have occurred. There is a strong emphasis in this collection on showing the implications of this attack for the local community, although materials also include letters sent to people in Boston from students around the world.
In this past year I have become familiar with these materials while adding to and editing some of the metadata for these items in the DRS to clarify the copyright status, associated names and subjects of these materials, as well as the languages used in certain items, for researchers. In surveying this collection, I was particularly intrigued by how the marathon community dealt with this trauma. This attack created a lot of fear and uncertainty around future marathons. In fact, the London Marathon was run six days later, and security was greatly increased there because of what had happened in Boston. But many marathoners in Boston and across the country defiantly raced again, and two of these races – both called “One Run” – are documented in the Our Marathon collection.
The first of these races, the “One Run” Boston Marathon event, took place on May 25, 2013. The bombings kept about 5,700 runners from finishing the original race on April 15, and so “One Run” was seen as a way for these runners to complete the final mile of the race. The Facebook post about the event also said “all are welcome to run – nobody will be turned away. This is a free event open to everyone. No registration is required.” This event was thus meant to be inclusive and healing, but it also allowed marathoners to re-experience the outcome of their race.
Numerous photographs, contributed to this archive by MarathonFoto, also display the joy of the participants and their families as they cross the finish line.
The second race highlighted in the Our Marathon collection occurred a month later. “One Run for Boston” was a non-stop running relay of 3,328 miles, starting in Los Angeles on June 7, 2013, and ending in Boston on June 30, 2013. This race, organized by Danny Bent, Kate Treleaven and Jamie Hay, was a fundraiser, collecting $550,000 for the victims of the bombing through Boston’s One Fund.
The “One Run for Boston” race had an emotional finish. John Odom was badly injured while watching his daughter run on April 15. On June 30, his daughter, Nichole Reis, handed the baton to him in his wheelchair and pushed him over the finish line.
Both of the “One Run” races served first and foremost as an acknowledgement of the suffering caused by the marathon bombing. They also served as a unifying force, made clear by the obvious camaraderie displayed in the photos here. But finally, these races allowed marathoners a kind of therapeutic experience – they took hold of a situation in which they were vulnerable and transformed it into an active reclamation.
For anyone who has browsed the Boston Globe Library Collection’s sports photographs in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, some photos in the Netflix docuseries Bill Russell: Legend might look familiar. The docuseries was released on Netflix February 8 and features many photographs from our Boston Globe Library Collection and also draws upon the Archives’ records of Bill Russell’s social justice history.
The Netflix docuseries explored many facets of Russell’s life beyond his sports career, which mirrors the records of Bill Russell held in our collection. Along with photographs of Russell coaching and playing basketball, the Boston Globe Library Collection has photos of Russell speaking at school graduations, at press conferences at the Boston NAACP headquarters, at Roxbury neighborhood meetings, and at his restaurant Slade’s Bar and Grill.
Russell is represented in our Special Collections as a frequent presence at Civil Rights demonstrations and Freedom Stay-Outs protesting the racial imbalance in the Boston Public Schools. In an interview, former president of the Boston NAACP branch Kenneth Guscott recalled seeing Russell:
“I remember when we were marching down on one of the marches, there was more than one march, that the star from the Celtics, Bill Russell, he was very active in the civil right movement. When we were marching, Bill was there and he was right in the front line with us, right across. As they marched down Columbus Avenue, this lady came rushing up and said, wait for me, wait for me and she jumped in the line beside Bill Russell. It was his wife. She jumped in that line and started marching with us.”
In a speech by Russell for the Freedom School graduation ceremonies in 1966, he closed by saying asking Roxbury students:
“Is there anyone of you young people here tonight who wants to be President of the United States? Is there anyone who wants to be Secretary of the United States? Would you like to be Ambassador to the United Nations? Why not?
Remember, you can do anything you want to do. If you want to do it badly enough.”
Russell’s legacy is preserved in many archives and special special collections across the country, and many of those archives’ records were gathered to tell the story of Bill Russell’s life in Bill Russell: Legend. Learn more about the Bill Russell: Legend docuseries available through Netflix here.
Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections holds many records documenting Boston’s Black history. Several of these that celebrate Black joy and creativity come from Elma Ina Lewis, a leader in Boston’s performing arts scene throughout the mid-20th century. The Elma Ina Lewis papers document her early life and her professional activities, like establishing the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1950, the National Center of Afro-American Artists in 1968, and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in 1969.
Sources: “Babatunde Olatunji teaches heritage and drums.” National Center of Afro-American Artists records (M042). Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections Department. “Elma Ina Lewis candid.” National Center of Afro-American Artists records (M042). Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections Department.