The Archivist’s Eye: African-American Artistry and Community Activism Found in Collector’s ArtifactsPosted: January 18, 2016
By Tom Owen, Archivist for Regional History, Archives and Special Collection
Last September, I returned from vacation to find on my desk chair a file folder of fifteen or so miscellaneous archival items related to African-American history. They had been left there by Donna Woods, the niece of a committed friend of UofL’s Archives and Special Collections, Juanita White, who has been involved in local Black history research for decades. Woods subsequently told me that the materials had been part of a larger cache of historical documents found on a shelf in an upstairs closet of an abandoned house in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood that her father had purchased decades ago. She believed the collection of memorabilia had been assembled by a long-deceased African-American school teacher named Lucille Keene.
A couple of weeks ago I got around to putting my archivist’s eye on what at first blush might be like useless left-behinds found in an empty sock drawer. Should the disparate items be kept or pitched? Just because some items date to the mid-1920s doesn’t automatically mean you keep them. Is the information duplicated elsewhere? Is it relevant to the history of the Louisville area? Do the documents answer questions that future inquirers might ask?
If retained, should the items be kept together as part of a small identifiable collection or dispersed among topical reference files here in our archives? Could I make a better judgment if I knew more about the person who conscientiously clipped articles from newspapers, picked up a funeral leaflet at church, or assembled concert programs over a four decade period? Are there threads of meaning that give deeper purpose to Lucille Keene’s collecting?
The items in the file primarily document performances in Louisville of two classically-trained African-American concert artists, internationally-renowned Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. Hayes, a native Georgian, actually worked as a waiter at Louisville’s Pendennis Club — a Louisville City Directory confirms he boarded in a West Chestnut Street home in 1911 — long before he hit the big stage. Clearly with both hometown and racial pride, Ms. Keene had kept Hayes’ programs from concerts in our River City in 1925, 1926 and 1961. Marian Anderson’s 1957 and 1959 Louisville concerts are documented with associated news clippings describing the turn-away crowds, the African-American sorority that sponsored her visits and a reception for Anderson in a private home. Finally, there is a 1960 funeral flyer containing a biographical sketch for Eugene S. Clayton, who had been elected to the old Louisville Board of Alderman in 1945 as the first African-American local legislator.
My archivist’s eye saw sufficient evidence that Lucille Keene had stashed away documents that celebrated Louisville-connected African-Americans who made a significant mark in the face of hostile circumstance. Clearly, her effort was worth preserving for future generations but did those few disparate items need to stay together as a Lucille Keene Collection? Led by both the collection’s small size and the fact that the items revealed no details about the life of the collector, I decided that research would be better served if the documents were placed in biographical reference files for Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Eugene Clayton that we maintain here in the archives.
Interestingly, after I decided the disposition of the file’s contents, I learned a lot more about Lucille Keene. With the help of Ms. White, an inveterate researcher in African-American history, we determined that Keene was not a teacher after all. In fact, born in 1893, Lucille (Hall) attained only an eighth-grade education and worked as a maid and tobacco factory “stemmer” before her marriage to John Keene, a butler and house man, when she likely became a housewife. From online searching it was determined that the Keenes owned their home in the Russell neighborhood for over fifty years with Lucille dying in 1969 and John in 1983. An even fuller picture of Ms. Keene emerged when I asked our research friend about those items from the closet cache that were distributed—a few at a time—to various schools and archival repositories across the U. S.
Had I known earlier, I would have urged Ms. Woods to keep Ms. Keene’s “archive” together here at UofL in a larger collection bearing her name. In that way, a researcher could quickly ascertain in one place many of Keene’s interests and commitments based on the totality of what she decided to stow away years ago! An online search of the archival finding aid that would be prepared for her papers would turn up documents that were specific to the organizations, institutions, individuals and places she touched.
From a verbal description of those items dispersed elsewhere it appears that John Keene’s income as a butler must have been sufficient for his wife to be fully engaged in the religious and social life of African-American Louisville. Despite her limited education, Lucille was a leader in the women’s movement of her American Baptist Church sometimes traveling to state and national conferences. In addition, she once served as president of her local women’s club affiliated with the Kentucky Association of Colored Women and was honored for her extensive volunteer service to both the Red Cross and the American Cancer Society. Several postcards sent back home chronicle her travels to Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York noting her stops at sites that commemorated African-American achievement. When considered along with those items left on my desk chair, Lucille Keene was a busy Louisville woman who took great pride in the achievements of her race despite hobbling discrimination.
I’m grateful that I was able to put my archivist’s eye on a few things discovered in Ms. Keene’s closet and, with the help of Juanita White, to learn more about her significant community involvement.