The Importance of Dusty, Old Boxes
Elizabeth Smith-Pryor, Ph.D, is an associate professor and undergraduate coordinator in the Department of History at Kent State University. Her current research involves what is called America’s “Second Reconstruction,” the eras of the modern civil rights and Black Power movements. Her focus is the National Urban League and one of its affiliates, the Urban League of Cleveland.
Why the Urban League?
Smith-Pryor noted that there had been excellent works of scholarship on some of the more “radical” Black Power groups, like the Black Panthers, but wondered how some of the more conservative groups responded during the civil rights movement of the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s.
The National Urban League had its start in 1910. “In the early 1960s, the New York Times describes them as ‘the nation’s least turbulent civil rights organization,’” Smith-Pryor said.
“These guys aren’t going to rock the boat or anything. They’re not going to be wild. They’re not going to be out there protesting. They’re not going to be doing that kind of thing," she said. "They tended to be more a kind of group who sat down and worked with corporate leaders.”
Changing with the times
She said that around the time Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and cities like Washington, D.C., and Cleveland were in the throes of urban rebellions and riots, Urban Leagues found themselves wondering what they should do. “That’s what got me interested in thinking about looking at this one organization to see how they face this sort of movement,” Smith-Pryor said. “How do they face this challenge?”
To answer this question, Smith-Pryor went to the Library of Congress and worked through boxes and boxes of files of material about the National Urban League. She also visited the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland to view papers about the Urban League of Cleveland.
A great find, close to home
After her visits to Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, Smith-Pryor thought it would be interesting to see what kind of material Kent State's University Library had from local Urban Leagues. In the library’s Special Collections and Archives, she discovered seven archival boxes of materials from the Warren Urban League. Smith-Pryor and Kent State President Todd Diacon opened several of the boxes together as part of Diacon’s “What’s The Big Idea” video series that spotlights research at the university.
Each of these boxes contained about 20 folders, stuffed with papers. Some of the boxes hadn’t been opened in decades. In one of the boxes, she found a telegram.
“Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968,” Smith Pryor said. “Five days later, the National Urban League in New York City sends a telegram to all of its local affiliates, including the one in Warren, saying, ‘We’re having a big meeting at the end of the month. Be there because we have to figure out our new strategy.’”
“No, I had read about this telegram. I knew it had gone out, but I never saw a copy of it in the National Urban League’s papers in the Library of Congress, I’d never seen it in the Urban League of Cleveland’s papers at the Western Reserve Historical Society,” she said. “But there it was, the actual telegram. I’d never seen a telegram before – an actual telegram! That was very exciting.”
“They had to get the information out fast. But how do you get the information to people that fast? Online? No,” Smith Pryor said. “You know, today fax machines are considered old-fashioned, but there wasn’t even a fax machine in 1968. So, you sent telegrams.”
Back into the boxes
The papers in Kent State’s Special Collections and Archives show that at some point, the Youngstown Urban League combined with the Warren Urban League, and Smith-Pryor has continued to explore Warren’s place in African American history, as well as the histories of the Urban Leagues at the local and national levels.
It’s important to go back into the dusty, old boxes because they can tell us stories about our past, about maybe paths that weren’t taken,” Smith-Pryor said.
“It’s all wrapped up with what historians do and why we do it.”