A Paper Trail and a Demolition – Thu October 9, 2014

This past week has felt as if every step forward has been followed by a step backwards.  Firstly, the letters collection that I went to see in Chatham contained a lot of new letters that I had not seen before.  However, they were only new to me.  As I’d feared, the letters have all been to the Ontario Archives where they were catalogued, stabilized, read and probably studied.  Secondly, I was fortunate to film footage of three excellent interviews to gather differing points of view on Mary Ann Shadd.  However, the points of view are not all that different from each other, and I fear that the differences between today’s PoVs and historic PoVs will be kind of predictable, and therefore not very interesting.

That said, the second day of filming in Chatham, last Friday, led to an interesting story.  According to the Robbins’s, who found the letters, the collection had been in the attic of their old house ever since they moved in.  They never knew it was there.  When they built a new house and had the old one demolished, they still didn’t know the letters were there.  It was only when Maxine Robbins went back looking in the pile of debris from the house for some pieces of wood, that she came across the first of the letters.  Seeing a letter written by a girl, she looked further, and in due course, and with the assistance of others, the rest of the collection was found.  The total collection probably includes 200-300 documents.  It was total luck that the entire collection was not lost.

But it raises some questions in my mind about why Mary Ann Shadd took such care to save these letters and other papers, but then just abandoned them upon her return to the U.S.  What does this say about her priorities and her motivations?  She was a prolific writer, with at least four books published, and a newspaper, as well as many sermons and speeches.  She left a massive paper trail but perhaps a collection of letters was just unimportant in the context of her life at that point.

We know that when she returned to the U.S. in 1863, that the country was in the middle of a Civil War that would ultimately determine the fate of 4 million Black slaves as well as half a million free Blacks.  Abolition of slavery had been the focus of her parent’s life and then became her focus as she grew to be an adult.  And in 1863 she was being called to help recruit Black soldiers to fight in the war.  In 1863 she was also a recent widow with two small children of her own to care for, as well as three stepchildren.  Perhaps she just forgot about the letters and then later was preoccupied with more important matters.

More broadly, what does this collection tell us about the meanings of letters collections, and of letters collections that become separated from their authors?  Or are abandoned?  I have been reading over the past few days about letters collections in Maynes, Pierce and Laslett’s 2008 Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History.  Also Jennifer Bernhardt Steadman’s 2007 Travelling Economies: American Women’s Travel Writing which has an entire chapter on Mary Ann Shadd.

For a film, the visual imagery associated with the house, the letters and the demolition is strong.  The story of the discovery of the letters is also compelling from a film-making standpoint, and I think there is a good narrative that situates Mary Ann Shadd in the context of her life’s work on abolition of slavery and her paper trail, at the point in 1863 when she left her letters behind in an attic, and literally turned the page.

This coming week I want to continue reading about letters collections.  I also want to finish transcribing the content of the interviews, since this is a helpful approach for my later script-writing.  As well, I have begun the process of organizing the already large numbers of still images I’ve collected, and want to make progress on that, as well as tracking down the original sources of some of the images for which I presently only have improperly-sourced copies.


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