The Haunting of the Archives

Toward the end of my undergraduate studies I stumbled (literally) into a sign that would drastically alter my destiny. As a night out with friends drew to a close, I walked into a historical sign marking the sight of where the former North Carolina Eugenics Board (NCEB) had held its bimonthly meetings. That sign haunted me in the days and week after. I wanted to uncover the story of the forced sterilization and medical abuse of poor black women in the name of eugenics, and I felt the specialized training in archival theory and practice I would receive in graduate school would be central to uncovering this injustice. 

But for this project, the archives were hell. I was often placed at “special desks” away from the silent comradery of other researchers. This is where employees would haunt me as I worked: blatantly passing my desk, lingering in my space as I scanned newspaper clippings. Requesting materials felt as if I was conjuring some dark entity from the underworld. Archivists would sometimes recoil at my request, calling for supervisors and whispering in hushed tones. Other times, archivists purposely kept information out of my hands due to “state interests.” Calls to state institutions that housed eugenics victims went ignored or were directed to an attorney. Requests for interviews came with a hefty “speaking fee.” Days would pass before I found a sliver of information useful for my project. When I revealed to one archival employee that I was looking into filing a Freedom of Information Act petition for archived medical records, she shook her head at me and told me to “leave it buried.” 

The frustration I felt troubled me in my own mind. Even in my sleep, I felt haunted. In one dream, I walked a hallway of shiny green floors and hot lights. I smelled burning flesh, and screams pierced my ears. I would wake up so scared sometimes that I would not open a book or my laptop for days. I felt heavy and burdened most days. But somewhere in my anguish was the confirmation that I was where I was supposed to be. Everything I needed to tell the story was provided for me, if I was willing to do real work. I refused to “leave it buried.” Ultimately, I had to approach the archives differently. 

In the stillness of the stacks I felt the spirit of women such as Sarah Cotton, who was twenty-one years old when she gave birth to her third child, Evander, at the Mathiesen Clinic in 1967. Cotton alleged that while she was only a few hours post-partum, physicians inserted a device that would hinder her future reproduction. The device was not discovered until decades later, after Cotton had developed a history of failed reproduction attempts and chronic stomach pain, both of which physicians systemically failed to treat seriously. 

Some sterilization petitions were haphazardly written or flat out illegible. Others did not even bother with an actual name. A 1968 sterilization petition read as “she comes from a home where the father is known to indulge in alcohol and has molested [her] and attempted to molest a younger daughter in the home.” With her father’s and abuser’s consent, this child was ordered to be sterilized. In another case, an unidentified twenty-four-year-old black woman on the premise that she “never lad a lasting relationship with anyone of the opposite sex. All of her children’s fathers are casual acquaintances.”1 Contempt for black women was glaring in these petitions, which read like grocery story tabloids. From 1960 to 1962, of the 467 sterilizations ordered by the NCEB, 284 were performed on black women. By 1966, out of the 350 women ordered for sterilization, 227 were black. Throughout the 1960s, black women were being disproportionately sterilized in relation to their population due to the racial and sexual imagery of black women and their bodies.

Here is what I learned when I emerged from this project and what every budding black woman scholar must know about commanding the archives. First, the archives are a sacred space. It is where the stories of black women are buried yet are whispering for discovery. Every research day began with a silent prayer for guidance and ended with a prayer of gratitude for what I had uncovered. Even the dreams became beneficial to my research. Before bed, I prayed the women I heard whispering, both the named and nameless, showed up in my dreams to guide me as I tried to give voice to their experiences. I prayed that they would show me their humanity, instead of the forty or so words of maliciousness and gossip used by NCEB justify their sterilizations. 

Secondly, I learned to lean on black women scholars, even outside of my subject area, for guidance to teach me what graduate school had not. As much as I admired my thesis adviser, he was a white man. His advice on archival practice could only carry me so far. Studying black subjects, regardless of the publication date, is a daunting task and presents unique challenges. So, I followed Dorothy Roberts and Harriet Washington’s blueprint for how to construct medical histories with black women’s bodies as the data. Evelyn Higginbotham, Darlene Clark-Hine, and Deborah Gray White, as well as newer scholars such as LaShawn Harris and Treva Lindsey, taught me how to weave very little archival data against the historical and real shared experiences of black women, such as sexual abuse, racism, and poverty. Unexpectedly, I learned that black women have no actual safe spaces, even in history. The draw to history has always been getting lost in the pages of great stories and studying people who lived vastly different experiences. But the archives illuminated the difficulty in seeing how my real experience of being a black woman often mirrored the women in the pages. In the archives black women often confront their own existences, and the experience can be haunting and at times traumatic. 

Lastly, I learned that archives reflected what the world is for black women. It can be a cruel and unkind place. This project reinforced that even in historical memory, black women are stripped of humanity and discarded to the darkest of spaces. The NCEB, a government-run program created by state legislation, failed to document these meetings properly and in accordance to the rules and guidelines of institutional record keeping. These women were not even given the dignity of having their names recorded. The archives are where history can be seen but our stories are rendered invalid by those who fail to document our experiences into actual data for future study.

In the end I realized that I wasn’t being haunted; I was being awakened.

Bridgette Robinson is an associate professor and coordinator of the African American Studies Institute at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland. Her research interests include early twentieth century eugenic science, reproductive health, and race politics. She recently contributed two articles “Race Uplift,” and “Compulsory Sterilization of Black Women,” to The World of Jim Crow America: A Daily Life. Her dissertation, “The Battle for Respectability: The Black Bourgeoisie’s Use of Eugenics Rhetoric in Race Uplift Politics, 1895-1940,” is currently being revised into a manuscript for publication

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