The Accidental Archivist
John Gartrell’s tenure at the Afro offers an intimate view of history
Published: October 17, 2012
Archival work can be romanticized, conjuring up images of Indiana Jones in a broad-brimmed hat, deciphering encryptions in ancient libraries, keeping one step ahead of Nazi pursuers. But the most visibly exciting part of Afro-American archivist John B. Gartrell’s day-to-day routine is, perhaps, the Gado machine, a tabletop robot with a suction cup that picks up old photographs and puts them down onto a scanner, a big assist in Gartrell’s effort to digitize the Afro’s sizeable collection of photographs. His typical day is spent fielding phone calls from people asking about old obituaries or scholars who need photographs for books. Occasionally, the editorial staff of the newspaper will need an old photo and he’ll scan that.
Housed on the second floor of the paper’s headquarters in Charles Village, the Afro archives comprise two collections, which, taken together, include some 150,000 file folders and an estimated three to five million photographs, stashed among nine storage rooms. Not to mention the bound volumes of Afro papers from the different publishing locations—including Harlem, Philadelphia, and a national edition—dating back to 1910. Put together, end on end, that’s about 2,000 feet of materials Gartrell is responsible for.
“Pretty much any notable black person you can think of from the 20th century, we probably have something on them,” he says. “When I came in the door before I took the post, I had heard about the Afro archives. . . . It’s almost sort of a legend for local folks.”
Gartrell sort of happened upon archiving—“I always like to tell people archiving found me,” he says. While an intern at the Maryland State Archives during his senior year at Morgan State, he combed through newspapers from America’s antebellum period, looking for ads for runaway slaves as part of a larger project examining runaway slaves living in the state.
“That was my entry into really understanding how important primary sources are and the role of the archivist of being the caretaker for those sources,” Gartrell says.
Up until then, he had had plans to be a high school history teacher, but a knack for the intern work not only took him off the path to teaching but also garnered him his first job. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Morgan in 2004, Gartrell started working full-time for the state archives, where he stayed until joining the Afro-American in 2008.
Perhaps not all that coincidentally, however, Gartrell fits the profile of history teacher well enough. He wears glasses and a corduroy blazer, and he has a favorite topic: American slavery and the subsequent emancipation. He can talk at length about how Abraham Lincoln gradually assumed the role of emancipator, for which he became mythologized. He appreciates history as something that transcends mere facts and dates: “History is about people, and people are complex.” He’s soft-spoken.
But like a good teacher, Gartrell is authoritative, in that he knows a whole hell of a lot more than you do. He knows that Baltimore had the largest population of free black people in the country before the Civil War, which makes more fascinating the fact that the founder of the Afro-American, John H. Murphy Sr., was born a slave here. He knows that the Afro was a way through which many black Baltimoreans connected with a city once beset by discrimination—making it even more important to preserve letters of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, black leaders who spoke against the scourge of Jim Crow segregation.
“Just think about an institution like the Afro and how influential it was,” says Gartrell. “Being the cry and the voice in the wilderness saying, ‘These lynchings aren’t right and unequal pay isn’t right and segregated schools aren’t right.’ That history of the city is infectious.”
So while Gartrell isn’t running from giant boulders or contending with snake-filled pits, the rich history of the 120-year-old paper is plenty exciting for him. Indeed, it’s the reason Gartrell took the job in the first place.
“There still is a need for communities to have conversations between themselves,” he says. “That’s one of the roles that the Afro still continues to have to play. We still have to be a voice for the African-American community.”
It’s a voice that Gartrell relates to intimately as a black man, and one he’ll soon use on a national level: After spending 12 years in Baltimore, Gartrell will soon be on his way to North Carolina, along with his wife and 3-week-old baby. He’s headed to Duke University to take a position as the director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African-American History and Culture. It’s a big opportunity for a 30-year-old archivist. On a broader scope, he says, it’s a chance to preserve a slice of American history that is often overlooked.
“Especially in black history, we don’t often think much about our accomplishments and what we’ve done,” Gartrell says. “But you realize we really have done some tremendous things, and that history and that legacy is worth preserving.”
> Email Andrew Zaleski