Behind every archival find is an archivist. Beth Howse was mine.
If, for more than four decades until her passing in September 2012, you were ever a researcher in the Special Collections and Archives at Fisk University’s John and Aurelia Hope Franklin Library in Nashville, Tennessee, the name Beth Madison Howse is no stranger to you.
A fourth-generation Fiskite, her maternal great-grandmother Ella Sheppard entered the Fisk Free Colored School as a student in 1868. Sheppard was one of nine singers who formed the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers, departing on October 6, 1871, to raise money to prevent the closure of the fledgling school for freedpeople.
As a member, pianist, and assistant director for the singers, Sheppard was the most-recognizable and longest-serving member of the troupe who introduced spirituals to the world, and raised more than enough money to purchase the current site of the Fisk campus as well as to erect Jubilee Hall as the first permanent structure for the co-education of blacks in the South.
Having grown up in the home of her maternal grandmother in the shadow of that hall, Beth enjoyed a wonderful childhood in the environs of the Fisk campus at the height of its golden years surrounded by now-famous luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance period.
Their children were her childhood friends. Poet and librarian Arna Bontemps lived a few streets over while artist Aaron Douglas lived just two doors down, and the famous musicologist John W. Work III was her family’s next-door neighbor—17th Ave. North was quite a street.
By the time she was a teenager, Beth had long dutifully represented her family every year at Jubilee Day—the university’s most sacred convocation marking the initial departure of the Jubilee troupe—a tradition she continued throughout her life. Enrolling at Fisk at the height of the Nashville Civil Rights Movement, she excelled, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1965 before later attending Peabody College, from which she was awarded a master’s degree.
In 1970, Beth returned to work at her alma mater Fisk University; and, five years later, she began her career as a special collections librarian under the tutelage of Ann Allen Shockley, whom she succeeded.
I didn’t meet Beth until the fall of 1999. I was a freshman at Fisk when I first walked into Special Collections and told her that I was looking for some “good” books on W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.
She smiled sweetly while directing me to the card catalog and instructing me on filling out call slips. Beth was sweet and, yes, she knew the Dewey Decimal system by heart; but she wasn’t about to do something for you that she knew you should learn to do for yourself.
While neither of us knew then, that day was the first of many, many more visits I would make to Special Collections. Both curiosity and kindness kept drawing me into the sacred space more apropos for a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer than for a teenaged, first-generation college student from the Bahamas who hadn’t even known that history could be a major, much less a profession.
That’s why even after I began graduate school at nearby Vanderbilt University, I returned to the Fisk library with such regularity that I was easily and regularly mistaken for library staff. I researched a lot while Beth and I, and other staff, and other patrons talked a lot more—so much so that it eventually seemed like all I did while at the library was talk
Still, those were great times. I helped Beth learn how to use the computer. I’d leave sticky-note instructions on how to do just about anything she needed. Soon after, she’d phone wanting to know how to do something new.
Eventually, those calls stopped. Beth had mastered the computer. Because if you gave Beth any challenge, including changing almost everything about the way she did her job for 30 years, she rose to the occasion.
Sometimes, the occasion required encouraging someone else. Many a day, I ventured to Special Collections and just sat in her office when graduate school was wearing me down. After listening to my many plights, Beth would always say the same thing. “Oh, Crystal,” she’d say. “You can do this. I just know you can.”
It was the encouragement I so desperately needed. She never asked when I’d be finished with the Ph.D., the dissertation, or even a chapter. She just believed in me unconditionally. In doing so, she helped me believe in myself.
She was never too busy to help researchers—whether they were students, novices, or experts—reach their highest heights. Happily, she’d undergird them with her mastery of decades of archival knowledge and encourage them with the sweetness of her spirit and smile.
For more than 40 years, in book stacks and in archival boxes processed with her own two hands, without recognition beyond the preface of authors’ books acknowledging the debt they owed to her as both a professional and as an enthusiast, without great compensation, largely without even occasional recognition or award, Beth freely shared her expertise on the black experience with others.
No matter if said researcher was an expert of worldwide renown, a college student writing a term paper, a novice or enthusiast asking random questions about something of which they were not quite certain, or even grade-schoolers in search of a photo to put on a Black History Month project board, Beth treated us all the same.
Her gatekeeping was unlike most others. Not only was it dutiful and diligent, it was also unbelievably kind—as was she. As the caretaker of priceless Fiskiana and African-American archival materials, she knew the location of everything everyone was seeking; and she was confident that those materials would be safe in a borrower’s temporary care. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t know their value—they were priceless.
I’m writing so that historians remember that behind every great archival find, and in every extraordinary archive, is an often-forgotten archivist.
Beth Madison Howse was my archivist. I’ll never forget her. To Beth, every researcher’s work was as priceless as her archive. To me, she was priceless too.
Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation and the founder of HBCUstory. Known for her collaborative advocacy and entrepreneurial leadership, as a historian and storyteller, she is a gifted orator and sought-after commentator. She offers a wide range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life, and, of course, HBCUs, for publications including TIME, the American Historical Review, and the New York Times.