By Helen Bezuneh,
Special to the AFRO
November 15 marked the 60th anniversary of Afro Charities, a nonprofit partner to the AFRO American Newspapers. Afro Charities is dedicated to stewarding the AFRO’s archives and driving charitable initiatives to benefit local Black communities. Founded in 1963 as a charitable organization by members of the AFRO’s board of directors, Afro Charities recently expanded their mission to assume joint care of the archives, now working to make the materials more accessible to the public.
“There’s been a big expansion in the work that Afro Charities is doing and this expansion will really shape the next 60 years of the organization, focusing on getting these historical materials out to the public,” said Savannah Wood, executive director of Afro Charities. “I think Afro Charities is bridging this really rich history of the early Black press with the present, finding innovative ways to bring this distinct and unique perspective on history to the public.”
“The AFRO archives are a rich and unique cultural asset,” she added. “Very few organizations have access to that kind of material. We’re in a unique position to share that with students, artists, scholars and to shape the way that people understand U.S. history through those materials.”
Members of the AFRO initially founded Afro Charities to more efficiently direct the AFRO’s already existing charitable programs, such as Mrs. Santa, an annual holiday gift drive, and Afro Clean Block, a grassroots initiative that has worked to keep local Black neighborhoods clean.
Though their mission has expanded to care for the AFRO’s archives, Afro Charities remains committed to their mission of charity, whether that’s in the form of gifted clothing or engaging the community with educational experiences in the archives.
The archives feature unique materials that cannot be found elsewhere, carrying a profound weight of African American history that Afro Charities is dedicated to preserving everyday.
Deyane Moses, curator of archives at Afro Charities spoke on the materials on hand.
“The collection is rich,” she said. “It doesn’t only focus on events that are notable in African American history, but it also focuses on everyday people and their accomplishments. One of the things that the AFRO had a slogan for was ‘sharing good news.’ A lot of the times in the media that we don’t control, the news that we hear about ourselves or our communities can be negative –– downright just wrong and distasteful. The AFRO has always talked from our perspective, lifted up our community and shared things from our voice.”
The Afro Charities team has put a lot of energy into preserving the archives, organizing the materials so they’re ready for the public.
“So much of the work that we have been doing with the AFRO archives has necessarily been behind the scenes just because of the sites that we’re working out of and the type of archival work that we’re doing,” said Wood. “What I’m really looking forward to also is being able to share that labor with the public so people understand what we’ve been doing behind the scenes. I’m really looking forward to 2024, when we’ll have many more opportunities for the public to engage in the work that we’ve been doing quietly behind the scenes over the past few years.”
Afro Charities has also been piloting an artist commissioning project, which gives artists the opportunity to conduct research in the archives and create new work inspired by the materials. In 2020, for example, the organization opened “Close Read,” a group exhibition featuring work from artists who spent time conducting research in the AFRO’s archives. The art was projected onto the windows of Baltimore’s Connect + Collect gallery to facilitate social distancing.
In addition, Afro Charities directs a journalism and multimedia high school fellowship where youth have the opportunity to conduct extensive archival research and create new work in response to their discoveries.
“With archives across the country, typically you have to have pretty strong credentials— a Ph.D., et cetera, to be able to access them,” said Wood. “Through our programming, we’re opening this collection up to what I’ve been calling ‘non-traditional scholars,’ people who you don’t necessarily think of as scholars initially, to have access to the collection.”
The organization aims to relocate its archives to the Upton Mansion, where they also intend to establish offices for AFRO staff. They plan for the space to be a welcoming “state of the art” facility, Moses said, a place where local community members can engage with the organization and the archival collection. The projected house design would include a rooftop area for visitors, a library and more, said Moses.
“The Upton mansion was a private home before, it was also a radio station and a school for students with special needs,” said Moses. “So it has a rich history of educating and serving the community and it’s still gonna continue with that purpose in the future. We’re gonna make it into a community space, AFRO staff will also live there as well as the archives, there will be a gallery space, it will be very functional for the community and welcoming the community to come in.”
“Upton is located in a historically Black neighborhood, a historic Black church is nearby, the Black arts district is nearby,” she added. “There have been numerous African Americans who have lived in that neighborhood who are notable in civil rights and the civil rights movement. So it’s perfect and in a key location.”
While they await their purchase of the mansion, the archives are being housed at a Maryland State Archives facility. In the past, they’ve been housed at Bowie State University and Morgan State University, said Moses. While they’re in the final steps of making the mansion their home, they still have some funds to raise before making the purchase.
“We’re close to reaching our goal but still need some support, so we’re actively soliciting support from folks who want to help us get this done,” said Wood. “Once we have all of the financing in place, we’ll be able to put shovels in the ground, so our goal is to be able to do that by the first quarter of next year.”
Once they secure the mansion, they hope to train an intergenerational cohort of people to digitize the photographs in the archival collection.
“In some ways it’s an opportunity to learn about archival work and it’s also an opportunity to learn about Baltimore and world history through the AFRO archives,” said Wood. “And doing this in an intergenerational way means that there are connections happening across generations that wouldn’t have been fostered otherwise.”
As they go forward, Moses and Wood envision a promising future for Afro Charities, having recently expanded their team by welcoming new members.
“Afro Charities’ future is so bright I don’t even know if I can see it, I don’t even know if I can predict what’s happening,” said Moses. “It’s growing and growing and growing at an exponential rate. I really do see us being innovators and groundbreakers. We’re about to shake this sh–t up, we’re going to change this whole perspective of librarianship archives with the collection that we have here.”
“Sixty years is a long time,” said Wood. “I’m looking forward to honoring all the work that’s been done in the past and sharing our vision for the future with the public so people really understand the direction that we’re moving in going forward.”