Michigan State University’s Special Collections won a Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant in Fall 2018 to fund the processing and selective digitization of the Gladys-Marie Fry papers. Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry (1931-2015) was a leading scholar of African American quilts and folklore and her personal papers are a rich resource on those topics, including oral history recordings, drafts of her research and publications, correspondence, and other documentation of her professional and scholarly life.
The grant enabled me to hire three excellent undergraduate student assistants after a rigorous interview process for the Spring 2019 semester. This small but mighty team (joined by an hourly on-call assistant for processing another collection) impressed me with their collegiality, support of each other, and patient and steady progress of processing the collection.
Processing a large archival collection is complex and can be pain-staking. Metal fasteners were removed from the documents and documents were treated for mold and other conservation issues. The task is two-fold, as processing involves stabilizing materials for long-term storage, placing them in acid-free archival enclosures and storage according to their specialized needs, as well as creating descriptions to enable access.
We had a great level of responsibility with the collection as we unpacked each box: to preserve evidence, to care for the materials, and to ensure we describe the collection in a way that is optimally discoverable. We get to know the collection, and the people within it, in greater detail than possibly any other people ever will, which is inspiring and humbling.
I am extremely grateful to the committee for the Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant and the help from Taylor, Matthew, and Zoe. Because of this grant and their help, this unique and valuable campus resource will be available for everyone! To access this collection, please browse the finding aid and make your requests through our catalog.
MSU Special Collections is extremely grateful for the Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant, which enabled a crucial component of the grant to be for mentorship and education of student assistants to assist archivist Lydia Tang in processing the collection.
As described by student assistant Taylor Peterson "Working with archival materials has given me the opportunity to take agency of my learning experience in a way that I thought was not possible because I never imagined myself in the position of an educational gatekeeper because I was taught that the only people who were in those positions were “history’s victors”: white, male, middle to upper-class, straight, and/or cisgendered. Not fitting this mold, I didn’t imagine breaking into this work. That’s not to say that I wasn’t imaging myself breaking into other work that is also dominated by the “victors”, just that I felt that I was in some ways I’d have to be more advanced in a career than I am currently. [...] This position has prompted me to share what I learn as widely as I can, not only by presenting these notes in conversations, but also by focusing Dr. Fry’s work and research at the center of class projects and presentations to share with my peers."
Matthew Brazier wrote "I sought to join this project in order to complement my academic experiences of museum collections management with best archival processes, while working on the papers of an exceptional scholar of African-American quilting and folklore – Dr. Glady Marie Fry. From the very first day of archival processing this work-experience under Dr. Lydia Tang has been a phenomenal and educational one. As a researcher who has utilized archives, the opportunity to work on the opposite side of archives has been an illuminating experience. The ability to work through rehousing a collection, folder-by-folder, and have constant conversations about how to preserve and organize materials was an excellent means of processing the Gladys Marie Fry."
Zoe Russell reflected: "I originally assumed that this position would consist of simply sorting the collection of files and entering data into a computer, which, to an extent it is. However, I did not expect to learn as much as I have about the process of collection cataloging, the subjects of Gladys-Marie Fry’s research, and the personal and professional life about Dr. Fry. The research that she conducted into slave clothing and quilts was particularly rigorous. The property of slaves in the Antebellum South were not usually recorded or preserved, making any efforts to access such artifacts challenging, as evidenced by the two-thousand letters Dr. Fry sent to various institutions inquiring about slave-made quilts. Most of these inquiries were unfruitful, However, she pushed on and found several verifiable slave-made quilts to include in her publications and exhibitions, such as “Stitched from the Soul” and “A Knot in the Thread”. Not only her research posed challenges to Dr. Fry, as a black woman pursuing academia in the 1960s to the 1990s she was forced to repeatedly prove her worth as a scholar to her supervisors and colleagues. She went from arguing to receive equal pay as her white counterparts at the University of Maryland to becoming a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation. I am so grateful that I was able to learn about the life of this brilliant and determined woman, and help preserve an important and often overlooked part of American history for future researchers."