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Western Reserve Historical Society celebrates 50th anniversary, documenting Black excellence in Cleveland

African American archives
African American archives
Posted at 6:19 AM, Feb 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 09:11:18-05

CLEVELAND — The trove of Cleveland’s Black excellence started in 1971.

"A letter went out from the museum to the Cleveland community inviting people to come and participate in helping the museum collect and preserve the stories of African Americans who made an impact,” said President of the African American Archives Auxiliary, Raymond A. Wheeden Sr.

Wheeden Sr. says 23 people responded to the letter.

"One member is still currently with us."

He says soon after they got to work building what would become the African American archives inside the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS).

"The purpose was to collect and preserve historic documents related to African American history culture and life in Greater Cleveland,” said African American History Archivist, Patrice Hamiter. "The big piece was to make those things accessible."

African American Archives Auxiliary Collection

The collection holds the stories of Cleveland legends, including Alan Cole, considered one of the greatest documentarians of African American life in Cleveland from the late 1920s until the 60s. According to the WRHS website, “Cole was an entrepreneur and a civic-minded businessman whose photographs appeared regularly in the Call & Post newspaper, and for many years he was the only black member of the Cleveland Society of Professional Photographers.”

Garrett Morgan, inventor of the early gas mask and traffic light, is also among those included. Morgan would eventually sell his traffic light innovation to General electric Company in 1923 for $40,000. WRHS’s website notes Morgan also invented a safety helmet providing protection from smoke and ammonia. His "Breathing Device" was introduced in 1912 and was patented in 1914. The website reads, “he then used it to descend into the gas-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie to rescue workers after the Cleveland Waterworks explosion on 25 July 1916.”

Now, 50 years later, the collection continues to grow.

"We just received a new collection, Dr. A Grace Lee Mims which we are very excited about," said Hamiter.

Hamiter says Dr. Mims’ was one of the 23 pioneers who helped start the archives. Her collection includes memorabilia from her posters.

To check out the collection online, click here.

Celebrating 50 years

In a non-covid year, the African American Archive Auxiliary would likely host a gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its collection. However, that won’t be happening this year. Instead, the group is inviting Clevelanders to take their place in history.

“We want to prepare the archives and leave it stronger for the next 50 years,” said Wheeden Sr.

Its new “Share Your Story” Initiative aims to document current times during the pandemic and ongoing activism surrounding Black lives, police brutality and events sparked in response to the murder of George Floyd and countless others.

“What we really want people to do is share their story, how they're living their life and experiencing this moment, their neighbors, their friends, how they're experiencing life in this particular moment,” said Hamiter.

The WRHS is also hoping to recruit 1,000 people to contribute $1,000 toward funding the work of the archives and the auxiliary. It’s also offering a buy one gift one membership deal.

“It's a little ambitious, but we're an ambitious group,” said Wheeden Sr.