How ASALH Treasures Ended Up in the Dumpster and Now Ebay

Once upon a time in the 1990s, ASALH was in a financial crisis, running deficits with seemingly no way out.  It had a real estate portfolio that included a building on Fourteenth Street in Washington, DC.  One of the leaders of the board decided that the national headquarters, already worth a million dollars in the nation’s gentrifying capital, embodied an all-in-one solution, a permanent fix.  ASALH would sell the building, move the headquarters into a smaller and cheaper rental space in Silver Spring, Maryland, and run the organization in part off the return on the invested money.  For some reason, it was believed that the principle would yield $70,000, or 7%.  The plan was bullish, and ASALH would be lean and mean and stable.  A simple, easy-to-grasp solution.

Part of what sold the argument was the condition of the building and the neighborhood.  While the city had begun to gentrify, Fourteenth Street had the look and feel of being crime ridden.  And the building had seen better days.  Its huge basement that housed much material tended to flood, and why not be some where smaller, higher, and drier.

While the plan was simple, executing it had to be hard for many involved.  Fourteenth Street was the project of Charles Wesley, one of the great institution builders in African American History.  It was part of his late 1960s renaissance of the Association, when Woodson’s co-worker returned to Washington and became the executive director.  Wesley raised money to buy the building but the lion’s share came from the Ford Foundation.  History can be kind. Wesley passed away well before the sell became part of the board conversation.  History is also rife with bitter irony, and this move must have been hard for Samuel DuBois Cook.  An institutionalist in his own right, Cook was the Ford program director that Wesley worked with to get the funds for the property.  Now, less an a generation later, he was president of ASALH when the board sold the building.  The effort to convince him must have been great, or at least painful.  And the influence on the Ford may have been even greater.

Unlike the founder, who would through himself into every project performing mental and physical work, most of those who have served on the board have done their work from a distance, and have seldom volunteered their professional skills and even less often their brawn.  They have tended to be policy makers, or day-to-day bosses of the staff.  Being disproportionately people of thought and direction rather than action, lacking much practical experience, the board overlooked the details and expenses of making a move.   No one in the brain trust of the board, not even the leaders on the project, had made the calculation of what would become of the things in the headquarters. The things included more than eighty years of the records of the ASALH and the Associated Publishers.  And it included priceless artifacts and documents from both.  While Woodson had given many papers collections to the Library of Congress, there were still small collections in our possession.  There were Woodson’s papers, too.  Indeed, I found what became known as Carter G. Woodson’s Appeal among those papers.  And then there were the artifacts from the Associated Publishers, Woodson’s personal business, and it included photographs, original manuscripts, printer’s plates and engravings, and more I’ll never know.  The engraving plates included images of Nannie Burroughs, Henry Highland Garnett, and Henry McNeal Turner.

The process of leaving Fourteenth Street came without planning, less a move than a scramble.  No money was made available for professional movers.  Over the years, I have not identified a single board member who rolled up their sleeves to help.  Most lived out of town, some were too old, and others too grand.  Most were professors, after all.  Graduate students and local friends of ASALH pitched in to help the staff move from the city.  Worse still, no decision and provisions had been made to deal with the records and artifacts and trash of over eighty years.  Decision were made pell mell:   Volunteers moved stuff to several different self-storage facilities in Washington, DC.  Frantically and unwittingly, they placed thousands, yes thousands, of boxes of worthless materials in permanent storage facilities where it cost $5 to look into them and twice that to remove or destroy.  Bowie State University gave permission for ASALH to move material to their library temporarily, and that stretched over a decade.  It was a vast mountain of stuff–much of it unboxed–that covered more than six-hundred square feet and stood over six-feet tall, as high as middle-aged men could stack it.  Years later when I first saw it, I almost cried as I looked at rare black history photographs and Woodson correspondence crunched up by moldy, water-logged books and thousands of copies of the same flyers.   Over the years, ASALH’s board had included a number of leading archivists, and but none had taken the time to separate the wheat from the tons of chaff.  The total volume of the materials in the headquarters  was massive, and anyone who had been to the headquarters should have known it.   Years later, the material removed from one storage unit alone weighed over 55,000 tons, and I know because I signed to take it out and sort through it with graduate students such as Kamal McClarin and Anton House.  (Moreover, it cost ASALH over $25,000 a year to store what was mostly trash and excess publishing inventory, and it took nearly seven years to convince the board to allow me to stops the bleeding and clean up our mess.)

This was not the worse of Executive Council’s failure to plan the move.  Tragically, without rhyme or reason, the materials that could not be moved to storage units, permanent storage, or Bowie State room, had a much worse fate. With a need to turn over the keys and limited resources, decisions had to be made.  Locals would later recall that dumpsters appeared in the street outside of the headquarters, and material tossed into them.  Over the years, I have talked to integrationists, black nationalists, socialists, and those who simply love black people who spoke of the tragedy that unfolded and wondered how it could happen to an institution that allegedly believed in history.  How could they let it happen to Woodson’s legacy?

For days, cars pulled up, and conscious black people of all walks of life went dumpster diving.  This included professors who were members of ASALH, people who could have helped in the move.  From learned people you would here about manuscripts, Woodson documents, and rare books and photographs and other material.  All this sound apocryphal until you meet people who confess the treasurers in their possession and how they got them.

Collectors collect until they need money or die.  And now ebay is how many things change hands.  Yesterday, I received a notice on Facebook from a friend that some Associated Publishers engravings were for sale.  There it was, our history, on ebay.  I bought the engraving plate of Henry Highland Garnet, and alerted other friends.  This sell off of thrown-away ASALH assets is evidence of how a board can botch a decision by not doing due diligence.

The money from the sale of Fourteen Street did not get used as planned.  When outstanding debts were paid off, there was only $800,000 or so I’ve been told.  And then the Ford withdrew its support, something probably not understood by those making the decision.  Why would Ford continue to support an association that had squandered an asset appreciating rapidly in gentrifying Washington, DC, especially when they had underwritten it?  When I joined the board, ASALH was bleeding $120,00 to $150,000 of that money each year.  The simple solution proved to be a failure, a massive failure.  It cost on average $25,000 a year for a decade to store the material, and nearly $20,000 to remove it from permanent storage to decide what to keep and what to destroy.

The single, brilliant solution to ASALH’s problems proved to be an embarrassing, expensive, and tragic blunder, but one of the prime movers on this solution probably little understands what was lost and the total cost.  He has not lived in the city where people still talk about it.  No one has ever forced him to confront the cost of his plan.  Yet this person is a big booster of allowing  the University of Chicago to become the publishers of the Journal of African American History. This one has not learned of Gilbert Smith’s Big Lie on the University of Chicago Press proposal to become the publisher of the Journal of African American History.  He has not been disabused of the notion that Chicago will provide us a profit of $100,000 a year to buy and do for ASALH, or that our journal now profits us nothing.  Even though he erred, he is honorable and takes people at their word.