The National Archives for Black Women’s History collection will be relocated from the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md., and will be unavailable to the public from Feb. 18 through March 9, the National Park Service announced this week.
The archives are currently housed in the Carriage House at the Bethune site, and a recent assessment found that the facility was “not adequate” to protect the historic artifacts, an NPS official said. While the collection is relocated, the agency will determine “whether the Carriage House is a proper structure to protect the archives, what modifications/upgrades would be required, and whether it is financially and structurally feasible,” a Park Service statement said.
The archives were at “high risk” for “catastrophic loss from fire, flood theft and pest infestation,” said Gopaul Noojibail, acting supervisor of the National Park Service’s National Capital Area Parks East. “[And] because these are irreplaceable national treasures we felt strongly that we had to protect these documents.”
The National Archives for Black Women's History documents the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, including the National Council of Negro Women, which she founded; other African-American women's organizations and individuals associated with those organizations.
Part of the collection is already housed at the Museum Resource Center, the central curatorial facility for more than 5 million documents and museum objects from national parks throughout the region.
With modern environmental systems, research laboratories and a cold storage vault for sensitive materials, the Center houses other historically significant collections from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, Arlington House, Clara Barton National Historic Site and other national parks.
Not everyone is happy about the move, however.
“The archives belong at that site where they have been since the institution was founded,” said Bettye Collier-Thomas, a professor of history at Temple University in Pennsylvania.
Collier-Thomas, who sat on the federal advisory board that developed a management plan for the Bethune site, alleged that the Park Service “secretly siphoned” off a $2 million appropriation from Congress that was meant to improve the Bethune facilities.
“The Park Service has not acted in good faith. Instead of doing something for the archives they have neglected the building and allowed it to become dilapidated,” she told the AFRO. “There’s no need to move the collection. What they need to do is take the $2 million and retool the building.”
But Noojibail said the professor’s claims are unfounded.
“We have done some significant research on this and found no evidence of $2 million being appropriated by Congress,” he said.
In 2004, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.-D.C.) introduced H.R. 4293, which would have adjusted the boundary of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site by acquiring property abutting the site. That property—at the time—was appraised at $2 million.
That may have been where Collier-Thomas got the idea about the $2 million in funding, Noojibail said.
According to congressional records, however, the legislation died in committee. And, since then, the desired property has been turned into condominiums, Noojibail said, which “really put a cramp” in their expansion plans.
“What we are going to embark on is a study on how and if—from a feasibility standpoint—is it a possibility to bring [the archives] back on site,” the Park Service official said.
“The carriage house itself is historic…so to rehabilitate it to put the technology and other controls in place necessary to properly store and protect the archives would change that building quite a bit.”
“We are aware of the emotional connection of accessing the archives onsite and we are very sensitive to this,” he added. “[But] one of the primary things I have to do is to ensure these irreplaceable resources are around forever for future generations.”
The National Archives for Black Women’s History will reopen to researchers on March 10. Appointments can be made by contacting the Museum Resource Center at (301) 832-3967 or e-mailing: NABWH_Archivist@nps.gov.