The entrance to a building is shown, where it reads 'BENTLEY HISTORICAL LIBRARY' on the wall.
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The University of Michigan recently announced the launch of a new public database of Black students who attended the University from 1853 through 1970. The database, searchable by factors like enrollment years, hometown, college or graduate school and extracurricular activity involvement, is the first centralized compilation of its kind at the University. 

Angela Dillard, History Department Chair and a member of the Bentley Historical Library executive committee, said the concept of a centralized database in part grew out of the Being Black at the University of Michigan movement (#BBUM) beginning in the fall of 2013. 

“There was a list of demands on the University that student activists put forward and one of them was more help in understanding the archival records associated with African American students, in particular, at the University,” Dillard said. “All of this stuff has always been over at the Bentley Historical Library … But I think what student activists wanted was help making sense of it.”

This helped spark the creation of the African American Student Project, which is working to uncover the histories of Black students at the University. From the first Black student enrolled in the University in 1853, to those that enrolled through the year 1970, the Bentley Historical Library collected records of various aspects of student life like academic achievement, extracurricular involvement and housing. 

Terrence McDonald, Bentley Historical Library director and history professor, said they began by looking at U-M and U-M-affiliated records, such as enrollment information and student directories published by The Michigan Daily. They then expanded into census records, genealogy software and other methods to help confirm a person’s identity with at least two sources. 

Brian Williams, assistant director of the Bentley Historical Library and archivist for University history, said this database provides a new, innovative way to understand the Black experience of U-M history.

“The key thing is that it’s a database that can be queried and data could be shown in different ways, visualized (in) different ways,” Williams said. “We’ve put this together and encouraged people to use it (in) all kinds of different ways to find different stories … It’s something we couldn’t do before.” 

The project also emphasizes the history of housing segregation in Ann Arbor and at the University. In a data visualization on their website, the project team created a map of the city of Ann Arbor, including the U-M dorms, using the housing records of African American students. The map allowed them to understand patterns of segregation at the time and after the desegregation of Ann Arbor and the University — trends that continue to impact Washtenaw County today.

McDonald said creating an all-encompassing database can redirect attention from the “pioneers” of history, such as the first African American student to attend the University, to broader institutional patterns.

“The issue at the core of the project is this: how can you shift the focus of historical knowledge from the so-called ‘pioneers’ to the next 100, the next 1,000, the next 2,000?” McDonald said. “The patterns of people when there’s a large number tell you something about the institution, whereas the focus on pioneers tells you something about individuals. And most organizations in American society should (focus more) on the larger numbers and less on the pioneers in many ways.”

Dillard also stressed the importance of looking beyond the first person who achieved something because it often obscures a more complex and difficult history. 

“Institutions always talk about the first Black man or woman to do something,” Dillard said. “There’s always all of this celebrating of that person, buildings are often named after them or scholarships are named after them. But these are people who really succeeded often despite the institution itself.”

Williams said the team is pushing to expand the database and encouraging people to submit any corrections or omitted records for review. The team also plans to expand the database through 1980 in the future.

Both Williams and McDonald recounted instances of individuals contacting the team to add information to the database. McDonald said one person recently sent in photos documenting the life of an African American student who graduated from the Law School in 1911. 

Williams recalled an instance of someone reaching out to contribute to the database and said such encounters exemplify the importance of this project. 

“Since we’ve launched, we’ve had some really compelling contacts,” Williams said. “Somebody that was here in 1966 contacted us and said ‘I didn’t find myself in the database, could you add me?’ And we confirmed some facts, and then the response we got really, for me, was the essence of why we’re doing this project. She said, ‘Thank you so much for acknowledging me. I was only here a semester, but it was so important to me that I was at the University of Michigan at that time.’ And so something like that was a pretty moving response and really kind of helped reinforce why we’re doing this.”

Summer News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu.