How the Black Metropolis Research Consortium is transforming the field of African American history

Holding a piece of living history can be a rush. A single letter can reveal a new facet of a historical figure; a photograph can pinpoint a transformative moment in time. For those interested in Black history—a field not always prioritized in traditional historic preservation—these materials can prove even more crucial to understanding the past.

Connecting researchers to primary sources related to African American history and culture is the mission of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC). Founded at the University of Chicago, the BMRC is an association of Chicago-based libraries, universities, museums, community/arts organizations, and other archival institutions.

“Primary sources are the building blocks of scholarship,” said Marcia Walker-McWilliams, PhD‘12, executive director of the consortium. “They shed light on what people were doing in a particular moment, how they were living, how they were relating to one another, and the ways in which they situated themselves within their environment.”

Walker-McWilliams served as curator for a recent exhibition at The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, which traces the history of the BMRC and celebrates 15 years of documenting Black life.

Origins of the BMRC

In the early 2000s, a number of UChicago faculty members reported a common problem: a wealth of materials related to their scholarship were scattered across Chicago, however it wasn’t clear where they were or how to access them.

Led by Danielle Allen, former UChicago professor and dean of the Division of Humanities, scholars and archivists launched a series of initiatives aimed at tracking down materials related to African American history and increasing accessibility.

These efforts led to the establishment of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, officially launched in 2006. The name “Black Metropolis” came from the title of a book written by UChicago sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, in which they paint a portrait of Black life in Chicago during the early 20th century—from the Great Migration, to housing segregation, to a thriving arts movement.

In the spirit of their namesake, BMRC staff initiated a large-scale survey to locate and assess collections that shone light on Black experiences in Chicago. Though the consortium is based at UChicago, the BMRC is made up of over 20 member institutions in the city, including the Chicago History Museum, Columbia College Chicago and the Chicago Public Library.

Although the survey revealed a treasure trove of previously unknown historical material, many collections weren’t processed or accessible to the public. The BMRC employed several graduate students to create finding aids, which allowed prospective researchers to broadly search the contents of each collection. 

Fifteen years‚ many boxes and metadata fields later—a single portal allows researchers to search across collections housed in all member institutions.

Connecting researchers to collections

After the herculean effort of finding these collections, BMRC staff wanted to make sure people used them. In 2009, the organization launched a summer fellowship program, which invites scholars, artists, writers and public historians to conduct original research in Chicago.

For a month each summer, fellows receive support to come together in Chicago to connect with archivists at member institutions and each other.

“My experience as a BMRC fellow was invaluable,” said Ayesha Hardison, a professor at the University of Kansas. “It gave me an opportunity to experience the geography and cultural institutions many of the writers I study depict in their fiction.”

Hardison studies Black literature of the 1940s and 50s—writers like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. She’s most interested in how Black authors, particularly women, wrote about their experiences under “Jane Crow”—a period of racial segregation with additional layers of gender and sex discrimination.

During her summer fellowship, Hardison connected with archivists at the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Collection, one of the largest repositories of Black history in the city.

While digging into the collection, Hardison came across a writer she’d never heard of: Era Bell Thompson. A journalist who eventually wrote for Ebony magazine, Thompson penned an autobiography about growing up in North Dakota—a place where she was often the only Black child.

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