Honestly, the origins of this project probably extend back to my childhood, but that’s for another post. For now, let’s start in 2001 or 2002, in a classroom on a hill in the Lehigh Valley, where I first met William R. Scott, an incredibly brilliant and generous scholar, teacher, and man, who would eventually become my thesis adviser. In Dr. Scott’s class I was introduced to work that would change my life and shape my thoughts, particularly the works of Leon F. Litwack, Cedric J. Robinson, and Eric Foner. For that class I wrote a paper that would become my Master’s thesis, exploring the racism of early American Socialism and the white working class, in particular, examining the view of Eugene V. Debs on race, or what at the time was deemed, through lens of whiteness, as “the Negro question.”
While working on my thesis, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Indiana State University, whose library and special collections is home to the Debs archive. In that archive, I came across three chapbooks, each published in and around 1916, by Ross D. Brown, an African American socialist, orator, and poet from Muncie, IN. Each chapbook (now available freely online) was introduced by Debs, but what struck me was the strength of Brown’s words and convictions at a time when, especially in Indiana, the Klan was in its ascendancy and even the Socialist party was, for the most part, rampantly racist. I spent a lot of time with Brown’s poems, found a letter he wrote to Debs, and did my best to find him in the historical record. At the time there wasn’t much there, at least not much available to me in the limited time, access, and experience I had. All I could come up with was a single reference in Foner’s American Socialism and Black Americans.
After completing my thesis, “Coming to Consciousness: Eugene Debs, American Socialism, and the ‘Negro Question,'” I moved to Chicago and worked for several years as a graphic designer before going back to graduate school to become a librarian, eventually finding my way to Northwestern University. In those 15 years, I always thought about Ross D. Brown, hoping to find the time and space to research his life and works. This year I was awarded a research fellowship from Northwestern University Libraries to spend a year as a fellow at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, working half-time at my job, with the rest of my time dedicated to research and writing. In this space I will do my best to share moments from my archival research, though I will more frequently do that on Twitter and Instagram.
I have already learned that archival research demands a ton of emotional labor, from confronting trauma to working with and through grief. Two years ago, I lost my wife, Pam Downing. Earlier this year, William R. Scott passed away. The other day, in a digital database, I learned that in 1912 Ella and Ross Brown lost their first child, Robert Frederick Brown, only four days into his life. I think it’s important to write out their names. There are people who remember Ross D. Brown, people who remember Ella and even Robert, but I haven’t met them yet, and that’s another part of this project. As much as the archive saves, it also creates absence and erasure, but the archive is not just the Archive, and this is (not) only a beginning.