Church family papers receives grant

Archivists have two primary responsibilities as regards the collections they are responsible for: 1) the materials should be preserved for as long as possible and, 2) they should be made accessible to researchers. There is always a tension between these responsibilities because the latter impacts the former. When a collection is particularly important, usage by researchers goes up which also results in increased wear and tear on the documents in that collection. An example is the Church family papers in the Preservation and Special Collections Department. Robert Reed Church, Sr., Robert R. Church, Jr., and Sara Roberta Church were three generations of one of the most prominent African American families in Memphis. Robert Church, Sr., was a successful entrepreneur who owned businesses including a bank and an auditorium, and was known as the first black millionaire in the South. He was also a supporter of the Republican Party in which his son, Robert, Jr., became an important figure at both the state and national levels. Robert, Jr., started the Lincoln League and was active in founding the local branch of the NAACP in 1917. He advised several presidents and was a frequent visitor to the White House but his influence waned locally in the 1940s when he came into conflict with “Boss” E.H. Crump. Robert’s daughter, Roberta, carried on the family tradition of civic involvement and served in Washington, D.C. under Dwight Eisenhower and subsequent administrations in the Department of Labor and then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She began donating her family’s papers to the university in 1976 and continued to add to the collection for the next twenty years.

The collection includes correspondence, scrapbooks, photographs, published material and artifacts and has been used extensively by scholars including Elizabeth Gritter for River of Hope and Preston Lauterbach for Beale Street Dynasty. However, by 2016 the oldest documents in the collection were starting to fall to pieces and the collection was closed until funds could be found to rehouse them in archival grade plastic sleeves. An application for funding through the Direct Grant program of the Tennessee State Library and Archives was successful and Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett visited the university in January to present a check to the library. This money combined with additional funding allocated by the Dean of Libraries, Dr. Sylverna Ford, will enable much of the oldest material in the collection to be preserved and allow researchers to mine this rich resource once again.


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